Dam Probe Faults Covered Spillway
January 10, 2007
Jan Ten Bruggencate
Government agencies, individuals cited for years of negligence
LIHU’E, Kaua’i – An independent civil probe into the Kaloko Dam disaster – which killed seven people on March 14, 2006 – has concluded that the dam probably failed because its emergency spillway had been covered up.
“The dam likely failed by overtopping,” wrote an engineering consultant, Lelio Mejia, of URS Corp. in Oakland, Calif.
Mejia conceded that other possibilities, such as internal erosion of the dam wall and deformation of the dam by water pressure, were possible, but that water flowing over the dam wall because of the lack of a spillway was his key suspect as a cause.
The condition of the spillway has been a focus of intense interest since the disaster. Because earthen dams can quickly erode and fail when water flows over them, hard-surface spillways that are built lower than the dams are designed to automatically let water flow out during flooding.
The report, released yesterday on a special Web site, is the first official finding that the spillway has been covered up.
Bill McCorriston, attorney for Kaloko Dam owner Jimmy Pflueger, said that while he welcomes much of the investigative report, he rejects its key finding that the filling of the spillway may have caused the dam to fail.
“We continue to be firm in our belief that the spillway had nothing to do with the failure,” McCorriston said.
He cited “many factors that played a part in this,” including exceedingly heavy rains, the failure of Kilauea Irrigation Co. Inc. to divert water from the overfilling reservoir, the type of construction used for the reservoir’s dam, and the “abject failure by the state to conduct dam safety inspections.”
The report is the culmination of a civil investigation ordered by the state Legislature after suggestions that the state may have had some responsibility for the dam collapse and thus had a conflict in doing its own investigation.
State Attorney General Mark Bennett is still conducting a separate criminal investigation of the dam breach, and there are three civil lawsuits associated with the dam collapse.
The civil investigation was headed by Robert Godbey, an attorney and engineer who was selected by Bennett from a list of names supplied by a legislative committee.
BLAME BROADLY SPREAD
As depicted in the Godbey report, the overflowing water would have eroded the dam wall and caused its collapse, sending a catastrophic 400 million-gallon flood into the quiet Wailapa Stream community, killing seven people living in a streamside home and severely damaging the foundation of a state highway.
The massive investigative report spreads the blame broadly:
- To the landowner it says filled the spillway.
- To state and county agencies that failed to fulfill their regulatory and monitoring duties.
- To years of neglected maintenance of the critical dam structure.
With the Godbey report in hand, the Legislature is expected to overhaul the state’s dam safety legislation and dam safety program. Godbey’s report severely criticized the state for a key failure – it never once inspected Kaloko Dam. When Pflueger failed to respond to requests for access, the state never forced the issue.
Godbey also is critical of state government for critically underfunding the dam regulatory agency. Nationwide standards suggest Hawai’i needs at least 6.5 people to manage the state’s dam inventory, but the office had only 1.5 positions, Godbey said.
State Rep. Mina Morita, a Democrat whose North Shore Kaua’i district includes the Kaloko Reservoir, said she was impressed with the thoroughness of the report, which includes specific language for new dam safety legislation.
“It gives us really constructive recommendations to make it a better law,” she said.
Godbey’s report, entitled “Report of the Independent Civil Investigation of the March 14, 2006, Breach of Ka Loko Dam,” paints a broad picture of dereliction of responsibility – by virtually every individual and agency that came into contact with the reservoir after its builder, the Kilauea Sugar Co., went out of business.
On this reservoir and dam, as well as others across the state, regular maintenance has been a critical problem with the demise of big plantations – the economic engines that provided for repairs and monitoring, Godbey said. Dams are expensive to maintain, and most of the smaller agricultural ventures now using their water aren’t big enough to pay for appropriate care, he said.
He said that several studies over the years indicated that once the sugar company at Kilauea went under, “there had been no organized system of maintenance” for Kaloko, and systems were deteriorating. During most of the 1970s and early 1980s, C. Brewer & Co. continued to control both the dam and irrigation systems associated with it. However, in 1987, Brewer sold most of Kaloko to Honolulu car dealer Pflueger, while it retained the irrigation systems, a separation of responsibilities that led to problems.
“Mr. Pflueger was unhappy with the maintenance of Ka Loko ditch and the water level in the reservoir. (Kilauea Irrigation Co.) was unhappy with Mr. Pflueger because he kept turning off the irrigation water at the reservoir and made access to the system difficult,” the report says.
Kaua’i County cited Pflueger in 1997 for a grading violation after investigating a report of extensive grading next to the reservoir. In one of the regulatory failures cited in the report, it says, then-Mayor MaryAnn Kusaka ordered her engineers to “stop all actions involving Mr. Pflueger.” Kusaka has since said she was simply trying to avoid wasting time on anonymous complaints, even though in this case the complaint already had been confirmed by an on-site investigation.
Kaua’i County officials said they were reviewing the report and had no comment.
Godbey’s report says the Kaloko Reservoir emergency spillway was covered with soil after the county stopped its investigation into the unpermitted grading.
Years later, when U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, state Department of Health and county planning and engineering inspectors investigated the grading violations, no one appeared to have noticed the missing emergency spillway, the report said. As a result, Godbey is recommending all inspectors receive dam safety training.
There are no known witnesses to what was happening on Kaloko Reservoir in the hours before the dam failed, but sometime before dawn last March 14, the earthen wall collapsed.
“Almost 400 million gallons of water – roughly 1.4 million tons of water – came crashing down to the sea, taking dirt, trees, buildings, equipment and human life with it. Seven people were killed. Huge areas of land and ocean reef were destroyed,” the Godbey report said.
PRAISE FROM LAWYERS
Attorneys in one of the lawsuits, who represent the families of those killed, lauded the report.
“Mr. Godbey did a truly outstanding job in assessing the historical and factual bases of this tragic event,” said attorney Rick Fried. His associate, Tom Grande, added: “Human life and property has been destroyed, and that can never be replaced or repaired; however, we hope that our government officials move quickly to prevent this tragedy from recurring by implementing Mr. Godbey’s recommendations.”
Godbey launched work on the Kaloko Dam failure project in August on a $250,000 contract after the Legislature demanded a civil investigation by an independent party. His goal, he said, was not to assign blame but to study the practices that may have led to the failure and make recommendations to the Legislature on how to improve dam safety statewide.
Godbey worked on the report with a staff of experts, including: attorneys Jess Griffiths and Chad Iida, who like Godbey also is an engineer; University of Hawai’i law students Cameron Black, who has experience in environmental health and safety; and Joshua Strickler, a mechanical engineer; cultural anthropologist Deborah Ball; and attorney Heather Gamache.
Reach Jan Ten Bruggencate at [email protected] or (808) 245-3074.
Go online for the complete Kaloko Dam investigation report.
PLENTY OF BLAME TO GO AROUND
Quotes from the independent report on Kaloko Dam breach:
STATE OF HAWAI’I
“The State is required by its own statutes to inspect all dams at least every five years. Ka Loko Dam was never inspected. If Ka Loko Dam had been inspected by trained dam inspectors, the lack of a spillway would surely have been noted.”
“The State of Hawai’i inadequately funded its dam inspection program. There simply are not enough trained inspectors to fulfill the required statutory mandate.”
“County sent a notice to stop all work at Ka Loko Dam when it found unlawful grading occurring (in 1997). This was before the spillway had been filled in. … But the (county) engineer involved was called into the office of the Mayor, questioned, and told to ‘stop all actions involving Mr. Pflueger.’ This should not have happened.”
“The emergency spillway is an essential safety element of every earthen dam. It is dangerous to fill an emergency spillway on an earthen dam, or to allow it to become obstructed or unusable. It appears that is what James Pflueger did here.”
“The owner of a dam has the obligation to repair and maintain the dam. Even if Mr. Pflueger knew nothing of the alterations to the emergency spillway, that does not avoid his obligation to maintain the dam and therefore to discover and correct any problems with the spillway.”
KILAUEA IRRIGATION CO. INC.
“KICI, under the Water Rights Agreement, had the obligation to repair and maintain the entire irrigation system, including the dam … as a matter of practice for almost 20 years, KICI left the dam to its owner and dealt only with the other elements of the irrigation system. … The issue this raises for the Legislature is whether, and to what extent, a dam owner should be able to shift responsibility to another party for repair and maintenance of a dam through contract.”
“Given the heavy rains prior to March 14, KICI may have had the opportunity to monitor and control, or attempt to control, the flow of water into the reservoir.”
SPECIFICS LEADING TO THE KALOKO DISASTER
THE FILLED SPILLWAY
In late 1997 or early 1998, “earth was moved into the emergency spillway. … A number of members of the community were aware the emergency spillway had been covered.”
– GODBEY REPORT
The “channel of that previous spillway appeared to have been filled in, and there is no other spillway elsewhere around the reservoir rim.”
– LELIO MEJIA engineering consultant to the Godbey Report, based on an inspection Nov. 28, 2006
“Unusual weather began almost a month prior to the Ka Loko Dam breach on March 14, 2006 … During that 42-day period, 111 flash flood warnings – potential dangerous flooding already occurring or expected within the next hour – were issued for various locations.”
– GODBEY REPORT
“The evidence … suggests that Ka Loko Dam failed due to overtopping probably as a result of the lack of a spillway in the reservoir.”
– LELIO MEJIA