By Ken Ward Jr.
SALEM - The concrete spillway on the Lower Salem Dam is riddled with cracks. Steel support beams push out from the sides of the walls, which bend from the weight of surrounding earth.
Much of the ground along the base of the dam is a muddy swamp. Water seeps through, weakening the base of the structure.
The spillway and its drainage pipe are much too small for a lake this size. A steady stream of water runs from the pipe into a narrow creek, which winds past a row of tiny houses below the dam.
"This is a high-hazard dam," says Delbert Shriver, a dam safety inspector with the state Division of Environmental Protection. "If that pipe was running full, a lot of these houses would already be flooded."
But it's not like this dam is anything unusual to Shriver. Many of those he oversees are just as bad as this one, or maybe worse.
Take the Upper Salem Dam. Just across U.S. 50 from the Lower Salem Dam, it drains into a creek that runs under the four-lane and into the lower dam.
Like its downstream neighbor, the Upper Salem's spillway is much too small. Its walls bulge in and out, signs that the surrounding earth is ready to shove them in. The downstream base is even muddier than the Lower Salem's.
Terry VanHorn and her husband, Carroll, own the only house that's immediately downstream. All their neighbors were bought out by the town when the dam was built more than 25 years ago.
"It's kind of scary," Terry VanHorn said. "We try not to think about it too much."
All across West Virginia, the situation is the same.
Large and small impoundments were built decades ago to supply drinking water, or provide fishing, swimming or boating recreation. Others were built for flood control or to store industrial waste.
Today, dozens of these dams are unsafe. Their problems are mostly ignored, until it rains and one of them threatens to overtop.
DEP Director Eli McCoy notes that hundreds of citizens have protested, and hundreds of newspaper articles have been written, about one water pollution permit for one pulp mill in Mason County.
"But you rarely hear or see anything about dam safety," McCoy says. "And you're talking about something where people could die."
A review of dam safety records obtained under the state Freedom of Information Act reveals a serious and widespread problem:
* Half of the roughly 350 non-coal dams in West Virginia have not received certificates from the state indicating they are constructed properly and safely. More than 100 of those without certificates are classified as high-hazard dams, meaning that loss of life and property damage could occur if they failed.
Some dams have applied for certificates, but understaffing of the dam safety office has kept their applications from being processed. But most have never applied for certificates.
* The dam problem is a statewide concern. The 171 non-coal dams without certificates are spread throughout 42 of West Virginia's 55 counties.
A DEP report pinpointing dams the agency is most concerned about lists structures ranging from the Lake Washington Dam at Hurricane in Putnam County to Thomas Dam in Tucker County, the Castleman's Run Dam in Brooke County and Cacapon Park Dam in Morgan County.
* By and large, these troubled dams are not owned by renegade, out-of-state corporations. Companies generally recognize the huge liability and have the resources to maintain their dams.
Most of the troubled dams are owned by state agencies or local government bodies that complain they don't have money to fix them. More than 70 of the dams without certificates are owned by cities, small towns and local public service districts.
Another 26 are owned by the state, through the wildlife resources and parks and recreation sections of the Division of Natural Resources. Fourteen of the state-owned dams without certificates are classified as high hazard.
"We've got a long ways to go to get everybody in compliance with the law," said Brian Long, the longtime head of dam safety for the DEP Office of Water Resources. "The people who live below these dams should take an active interest in the fact that there's a dam upstream."
An underfunded program
A year after the Buffalo Creek disaster, West Virginia lawmakers approved the state Dam Control Act.
Under the law, dams have to be built to certain specifications that will ensure their safety and stability. Dam owners must inspect their dams regularly and the state is supposed to thoroughly check each dam at least once a year.
But the state's dam control program has suffered from understaffing and underfunding for years, according to those involved. The program for inspecting non-coal dams was nearly eliminated in 1986 by then-Department of Energy Commissioner Ken Faerber.
Charleston lawyer Larry George, who was then deputy director of the state Department of Natural Resources, saved it. But for years, it struggled along with only three staff members and lack of funds.
Delbert Shriver, for example, is the only DEP dam inspector in the northern part of the state. He lives in Fairmont, but has to cover territory in both panhandles. In all, he's supposed to take care of more than 200 dams.
Under Gov. Gaston Caperton, the DEP added money and staff to the program. Its budget is now roughly $335,000.
But it's been two years since lawmakers provided enough money to hire two new dam engineers, increasing the total program staff to five. The applicant for the second of those two posts recently turned down the job because it paid only about $24,000 a year, compared to his private sector salary of $41,000.
State and local governments, as well as private individuals, who own most of the problem dams in West Virginia are in the same boat as those who regulate them: no money.
Small towns especially point to tight budgets and trouble providing police protection or water and sewer service, let alone thousands of dollars for dam repairs.
"We know it's bad," Salem City Manager J.D. Davis said during a tour of the Lower Salem Dam. "We had an engineer look at it. We'll have to see what we can do and how we can do it. Money is hard to come by."
East of Salem in Bridgeport, City Engineer Michael Retton held a public hearing when DEP complained that two town dams badly needed repairs.
Nobody at the meeting wanted to drain the lakes, but nobody wanted to raise taxes to pay the $3.5 million repair cost.
The city of Bridgeport asked the state for money from the $300 million infrastructure bond fund approved by voters in 1994. But the state refused, saying that fixing a dam wouldn't provide any new jobs and therefore didn't qualify.
Retton said the state should create another revolving loan fund that would provide money for fixing dams and other non-job creating infrastructure.
The state DNR's wildlife section seems to be doing a bit better in its efforts to fix dams. Bernie Dowler, chief of the section, said he's trying to fix at least one dam per year.
DNR can use 10 percent of its yearly hunting and fishing license money for capital improvements. That amounts to about $1 million a year, Dowler said. Dams often cost nearly $1 million each to fix, he said, so the money gets eaten up quickly.
The DEP's Long said the DNR parks section hasn't been as successful. He said the parks section has promised to fix its dams before, but has never followed through.
Cordie Hudkins, chief of the DNR parks section, hopes that changes. He said he hopes to use more than $2.7 million of new bond money to fix parks section dams during the next three years.
"We can't ignore the others, but this gives us a real good start," Hudkins said.
Tiny steps forward
The dam safety program received some unexpected attention from Gov. Cecil Underwood's transition team.
At the insistence of George, who chaired the team's discussion of environmental issues, the transition panel suggested that "DEP immediately revise the Dam Safety Program by fully staffing the office, proposing legislation which strengthens the enforcement powers, and continue inspection program aggressively."
Long said he would also like to see lawmakers consider requiring dam owners to put up a performance bond to ensure the state could fix dam problems if owners don't.
George takes an even harsher stance. He says the solution to dam problems is simple: If owners don't fix safety problems, the state should just go out and drain their dams.
George has little sympathy for small towns or private individuals who say they don't have the money to fix their dams.
"That's a very understandable and logical response," George said. "But it's also a response that will be very damning if there is another disaster.
"It's just irresponsible and dangerous to leave a faulty structure in place that puts people's lives and property in danger."