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Publication date: Feb. 8, 2007


The Army Corps of Engineers in Kentucky seems to be terrified.

The Corps decided with little advance notice in mid-late January 2007 to lower the level of Lake Cumberland, the largest reservoir east of the Mississippi and the sixth most dangerous dam in the U.S. The reason was worries about dam failure that have been well understood and widely discussed since at least 1967.

But once again, the Corps, which owns and operates the dam, decided to restrict public access to dam safety information. Once again, they claimed they were blacking out information in an effort to protect people in the rural Kentucky hills from terrorists - when skeptics might have thought they were trying to hide incompetent Corps engineering, construction, repair, inspection, and maintenance of the dam. Or to diminish public concern about the possibly devastating consequences of dam failure - or to mollify public outcry about the economic pain of a second effort to fix the ailing dam.

The Corps faced a large, imminent danger - a public relations catastrophe. The 65,530-acre reservoir has 1,255 miles of shoreline and is the centerpiece of a regional tourism and recreation economy. Among those unhappy with the lowering of the lake were anglers, boaters, and owners of boat docks - some 40 of the lake's boat ramps would be left high and dry. Lowering the lake would threaten the cheap power supply for some 1 million customers who get electricity from its hydro units or other plants cooled by its waters, and the drinking water supply for some 200,000 people served by intakes that might be left dry.

Dam failure would be a disaster, too, of course - but probably not the kind that Al Qaeda would have much interest in causing - and certainly one that anybody could learn about by reading information that has long been widely and publicly available. The Corps has tried to reassure those living downstream of the leaky dam that few lives would be at risk if the dam collapsed - perhaps a few hundred at most. Dam failure could wipe some towns downstream on the Cumberland River off the map, and do some $3 billion in economic damage, much of it in downtown Nashville, Tennessee.

When Louisville Courier-Journal reporter James Bruggers asked the Corps for key information about the situation, they said yes, said no, said yes, said maybe, and then told him he would have to file a freedom of information request for stuff his competition was already publishing online. Then they told him that it would cost his paper a lot of money to get it and the paper would have to sign an agreement not to use it. Then they said they would put some of it in libraries, but nobody could copy it or publish it. Bruggers is seeking information that ought to be available to the public: maps of areas that would be inundated by dam failure, risk assessments, inspection reports, and emergency action plans, to be specific. These are all public records that he has a legal right to (as does any citizen) under the federal Freedom of Information Act.

But there is a worst-case scenario: the records could reveal a massive waste of taxpayer money on incompetent dam engineering, or a total absence of effective planning for public safety.

The Corps' representations that few people would be endangered by dam failure depend on some key assumptions: that people would be warned of imminent failure well ahead of time and that they would be evacuated, most importantly. But the Corps was for some time adamant in not giving people access to maps that would tell them whether they ought to evacuate. They are so far still adamant in not giving him "Emergency Action Plans" that state who notifies whom, and who evacuates whom, in the event of an imminent failure.

With the public ignorant of these things, many more people could die than would otherwise be the case.

Wolf Creek Dam, which creates Lake Cumberland, is an earthen and concrete structure built on a porous limestone bedrock called karst. Karst is subject to seepage which is what has weakened the dam. The Corps spent some $96 million in 1967 trying to stop the leakage and strengthen the dam, but the repair did not work. It now plans a new repair project at a cost of over $300 million.

The Kentucky situation is similar to one in Florida, where in 2006, the Corps denied local news media and residents access to inundation maps for a failure of the Hoover Dike confining Lake Okeechobee. The Society of Environmental Journalists urged the Corps to release the inundation maps in that case.

Last revised January 22, 2013

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