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Laurel considers suing WSSC over spring flood damage

The city of Laurel is considering a lawsuit against the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission after flooding this spring, brought on by a WSSC decision to relieve pressure on one of its dams during a storm, caused property damage and prompted late-night evacuations, city officials said Thursday. 

All told, the damage from the flood, which came after a day of heavy rains April 30, cost the city somewhere in the ballpark of $250,000 to $350,000, according to Martin Flemion, Laurel's director of emergency services. That figure doesn't account for property damage suffered by local business owners, including a dealership that saw some of its cars ruined by rising water, he added. 

"I'm not pleased with everything that happened here," Laurel Mayor Craig Moe told the approximately two dozen people who attended a community informational meeting about the flood Thursday night at Partnership Hall. "I think there need to be some changes in the right direction; more accountability and transparency." 

Moe and Flemion said city staff had met with WSSC officials, who "basically told us they were not responsible for anything downstream" of the T. Howard Duckett Dam, where WSSC stores drinking water for a third of its 1.8 million customers in the Washington metropolitan area, according to Flemion. 

Though city officials said WSSC has been "put on notice" of a potential lawsuit, WSSC spokesman Jerry Irvine said he hadn't heard of one. The city might have been in direct contact with the commission's legal department, he said. 

No one from WSSC attended the community meeting in an official capacity Aug. 14, although Irvine said one employee was at the meeting to observe. While city officials said WSSC leaders were "invited," Irvine said they had been "made aware of" the meeting, "not invited to speak."

"To have somebody arrive at a meeting but not have a clear understanding of what role they may or may not play, especially in a meeting where this topic was going to be potentially contentious – there's a pretty key distinction," he added. 

Concerns about the dam came to a head April 30, after torrential rains raised the Patuxent River high enough to exert dangerous pressure on Duckett's infrastructure. 

That night, WSSC officials made the decision to completely open up all seven of the dam's floodgates, sending gallons of water downstream. Laurel officials were notified 15 minutes before the inundation was to occur, according to a timeline presented by Flemion. Irvine noted that the city was "fully aware" that the dam gates had been partially opened up much earlier, and the 15-minute notification was only that the gates would be opened all the way. 

"They were very successful" in safeguarding the dam, Flemion said of WSSC. "However, we paid for their success."

In addition to property damage, many residents had to be evacuated from their homes late at night, including people living in Selborne House, a senior apartment complex. The rushing water also left debris in the Patuxent in its wake. 

"The river is crowded by what we call snags," Flemion said. "These are trees, debris, branches that are laying in the river, and those snags impede the flow to the point that the water starts backing upstream."  

After the flood, the city spent $55,000 removing some of the snags, he said, although he estimated that 27 remain downstream of the dam. The city doesn't have money to fund their removal, he added. 

Irvine said it was important to put April's flooding into context. 

"What happened back in the event we're talking about was that we had flooding and mass torrential rain throughout the entire region, and it hit both of our reservoirs hard," he said. WSSC also controls nearby Brighton Dam, in Brookeville. 

"We had waters rising in both reservoirs rapidly, and water started rising up and affecting an area that is under construction there and created a situation where we had concerns about the integrity of that structure," he said. 

"The key thing to realize," Irvine added, is "there was going to be flooding in Laurel. It was just a matter of whether or not it was going to happen in a more rapid fashion." 

He noted that WSSC had begun releasing water from the dam at least two days before the April 30 flood. 

Flemion acknowledged that concerns about the dam's structural integrity have to be taken seriously.

Duckett is what is called a "high hazard potential dam," which means, he said, "if WSSC were to suffer a catastrophic failure of that dam, the potential for loss of life and property downstream is very high."

It's for that reason, he said, that the city would like to see the water commission add some more leeway to the 3 feet of extra capacity, or "free board," currently required at the top of the dam. 

Irvine said it was important to remember that "those dams are not flood protection, they're... to protect source water.

"Forecasts change all the time," he said. If the WSSC releases too much water for a storm that doesn't materialize, the commission is then low on drinking water for customers. 

Flemion disagreed. 

"Call them what you want, [the dams] are flood control devices... If you look at it from my point of view, we're paying for these people to have clean drinking water. When the dams don't work right, we suffer." 

Laurel officials also want to see more local oversight for the WSSC. The WSSC's general manager is appointed by a six-member commission, which is in turn appointed by the Prince George's and Montgomery County executives, according to Irvine.

Duckett Dam is also regulated by the Maryland Department of the Environment's Dam Safety Program and modeled its emergency action plan off of the department's suggestions, he said. 

Citizens said they wanted solutions, and were disappointed that WSSC officials didn't attend the community meeting. 

"Given the damage that has happened and the potential catastrophic damage that could happen, I think WSSC's response so far and their absence tonight is shameful," said Mike McLaughlin, who serves on the city's Environmental Affairs Committee. "They should be here." 

Fred Frederick, whose Route 1 car dealership suffered property damage due to the April 30 flooding and who has considered legal action against the WSSC, according to Irvine, said the current situation harkened back to a 1972 flood after Tropical Storm Agnes. 

"This certainly isn't our first rodeo," Frederick said, but "the WSSC was never as arrogant as they are today." 

Irvine said the commission is "in constant contact with the city" during potential flooding events, and is open to meeting with the public. 

"Clearly, we would like to be part of the conversation," he said. "We  know that we’re a member of the community; we  affect the city."

Helen Jones, president of the Oaks North Condo Association, whose residences back up to the Patuxent's banks, said the community's flood insurance rates recently went up 300 percent. Of the neighborhood's 17 units, five are empty because their owners are unable to sell them, she said. 

"Trying to figure out budgets for future years" is hard, Jones said. "Most banks don't want to touch that." 

Moe said the city of Laurel was taking the measures it could to reduce flooding. He pointed to comprehensive stormwater management in new developments and police sweeps of homeless encampments before major storms. 

The city has also budgeted between $40,000 and $65,000 in its fiscal year 2015 budget to install gauges that would monitor the Patuxent's water level and notify police of potential flooding. 

He said Laurel officials had met with the city's state and federal delegations, and asked residents to write to elected officials to express concern about the dam. 

The situation has some urgency, Flemion said: due to climate change, there are likely to be more major storms in the years to come. 

"These storms are becoming more and more frequent, more and more severe," he said. 

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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