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March 25, 2008

Audit Finds Serious Problems with New York’s Dams

Some Dams Need Repair for Up to 36 Years; Audit Cites Lax Oversight
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The state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) recently proposed tougher dam safety rules after an audit by State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli’s office found serious problems that have existed in some dams in New York State for as long as 36 years and have not been fixed.

“We cannot allow dams to have serious problems that go unaddressed for years. We are putting people and property at risk,” DiNapoli said. “The longer owners take to correct problems, the greater the deterioration and the cost of these repairs and the increased likelihood that this neglect could lead to failure at some point down the road. This cannot continue. DEC has taken important new steps to require dam owners to keep their structures in a safe condition. I urge DEC to act on all of the audit’s recommendations.”

DEC has identified 133 high and intermediate hazard dams located in areas where failure would cause serious property damage and in some cases loss of life with high priority deficiencies. Under the current law, DEC can require a dam owner to repair or remove a dam if its condition has been rated as unsafe or unsound and poses an imminent threat of failure.

Given the number of dams identified that were in continuous disrepair, DiNapoli recommended that DEC’s enforcement authority be expanded to allow it to take action against dam owners who fail to fix deficiencies within a reasonable amount of time even if those problems fall short of the current threshold of causing imminent threat of dam failure.

The audit, which examined the period of January 2004 through February 2007, identified several problems with New York’s dam safety program including:

  • Lax Oversight. DEC infrequently placed deadlines on owners to correct problems or take any action to enforce compliance. Auditors found that in a sample of 32 dams needing repair, DEC only took enforcement actions on 3 of the 32 dams but not until they were deficient for up to 20 years or more.
  • Deficient for Long Periods of Time. Twenty-four dams remained deficient from two to 36 years, while two remained deficient for an unknown period of time.
  • Engineering Reports Not Done. Eight of 26 dams (31 percent) that were deficient had not had a required engineering analysis done and 14 (54 percent) did not have a remediation plan for how repairs would be done and when. In addition, few of these dams had emergency action plans.
  • Not Following Policies. DEC did not follow its own policies and inspect high hazard dams every two years. In 2000-2003, DEC exceeded its inspection goal of 300 per year, but it did not track the number of inspections that occurred for the following two years and only inspected about half the dams it should have in state fiscal year 2005-06.

DEC cited staff shortages, funding shortages and outdated policies that were not consistent with their current practices as the reasons for many of these problems. DEC generally agreed with auditors’ recommendations, and on February 13 DEC issued draft regulations that address several of the concerns raised by auditors. The proposed regulations also grant DEC broader enforcement authority. Public hearings on these regulations are scheduled to begin in April. DEC’s full response is in the audit report.

In the report, auditors recommended that DEC:

  • Seek sufficient funding and staff to enforce the timely correction of deficient dams;
  • Devote appropriate number of staff to dam inspection to accomplish a number of needed dam inspections;
  • Establish written procedures containing specific timeframes for progressing from voluntary compliance by dam owners to enforcement, as well as regulations requiring dam owners to file emergency action plans;
  • Develop a methodology to track when information is due from owners and when follow up actions should be taken;
  • Update guidelines to reflect current practices; and
  • Improve database maintenance and staff training.

Click here for a copy of the audit.

Click here for a copy of the 24 dams examined in the audit.

Click here for a copy of the 133 dams examined in the audit.

Audio from Comptroller DiNapoli.



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