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State law seeks to close gaps in dam emergency preparations

More than 40 dams across Maryland whose failure could cause deaths or significant destruction lack updated emergency plans, according to state officials. Now a new law is requiring owners of those dams — counties, municipalities and private businesses — to prepare.

Emergency legislation signed by Gov. Larry Hogan last week gives the state legal authority to force dam owners to write or update procedures to quickly warn first responders and residents of safety risks if a dam breach is imminent, or has occurred.

The Maryland Department of the Environment reported last year that its dam inspection division had difficulty keeping up with routine evaluations. But the division's leader said last week it is keeping pace with inspection demands this year.

The threat of dam failures gained national attention in February when damage to an earthen dam in Oroville, Calif., prompted the evacuation of tens of thousands of people.

None of Maryland's nearly 500 mostly earthen dams are as large or hazardous as the Oroville Dam, but more than 200 of them pose significant hazards to human life, major highways or homes, according to state inspectors.

That's not because they are in poor condition, but because they are located near neighborhoods or busy arteries.

Forty-two of those 200 dams do not have emergency plans that have been updated within the past three years, according to a list officials provided to The Sun.

"Many dams in Maryland were constructed decades ago and are now showing signs of deterioration," officials wrote in a recent report detailing the state's enforcement of environmental laws.

Dam owners reached by The Baltimore Sun, including county and municipal governments and private businesses, said they recognized the importance of the plans, and are working to update them.

"I didn't know they were actively enforcing these plans," said David Jarrell, public works director for the City of Annapolis. "It's good to hear that they are."

Dams being targeted include structures at Greenspring Quarry in Baltimore County, Lake Waterford and the Annapolis Reservoir in Anne Arundel County, Cascade Lake, several Hampstead stormwater ponds and another retention pond at the TownMall of Westminster in Carroll County, and on the property of a stone and gravel business in Jessup in Howard County.

A spokesman for the state environment department said it's important for dams to have up-to-date plans because contact information for those who would need to be alerted in an emergency can change.

"You want to have something readily available so if something is happening or brewing so everyone can respond in a timely manner," spokesman Jay Apperson said.

Hal Van Aller, chief of the department's dam safety division, said his office asks dam owners to update plans each year, and expects them to monitor the embankments any time heavy rain falls.

The division requires dam owners to write and maintain the plans when they obtain permits for their structures, but not all dams hold permits — either because they were built before permits were required in 1934, he said, or because development that has sprouted around them has changed their hazard ratings.

"This leaves the Division's staff to use correspondence, telephone conversations and emails to remind dam owners of the importance of having, exercising and updating" the plans, state officials wrote in a memo to the General Assembly earlier this year.

"This has proven ineffective and MDE has no recourse to address this through existing authority."

A measure the legislature approved last month requires all dam owners to update the plans by Aug. 1.

Jarrell, the public works director in Annapolis, said the emergency plan for the city's dam is in the process of being revised after repairs to the structure were completed last year.

The 6-foot dam retains what was once the city's potable water supply and feeds into the South River.

Tammi Ledley, Hampstead's town manager, said a series of stormwater ponds in the town were recently reclassified as dams, prompting officials to scramble for a way to pay for an emergency plan.

The town has penciled in $36,000 in its budget for the coming fiscal year, expected to be approved in June, she said.

"It's not the kind of things people can do in just one day," Ledley said. "That's a lot of money. ... We're working on it."

Anne Arundel County spokesman Owen McEvoy said officials are working on an updated plan for Lake Waterford in Pasadena. He called the new requirement to update plans "the best way to ensure we are prepared should an emergency occur."

Collin Sumpter, resource manager for Savage Stone LLC, said his company is also working on an emergency plan for what is known as the Laurel Lumber Dam in Howard. He said the company has "no issue complying with any new requirements" to keep the plan up to date.

Officials at Obrecht Properties, developer of the Shops at Quarry Lake around the Greenspring Quarry, referred questions about the dam there to Columbia-based Koren Development. Koren officials could not be reached for comment.

As recently as last year, Maryland's dam inspectors struggled to keep up with routine evaluations and frequent requests for technical expertise on smaller embankments, The environment department said in its annual report on environmental enforcement.

But Van Aller said the office has doubled its staff over the past two years — it now numbers eight — to tackle the backlog. He said the division is on pace to meet its goal of inspecting every high-hazard dam this year.

"We do try to prioritize dams by hazard classification and their size to get to the important ones as often as we can," he said. "We're doing pretty well."

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