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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, March 18, 2006

State got dam complaint 3 weeks before it burst

By Karen Blakeman
Advertiser Staff Writer

A complaint was made to government officials about the Kaloko dam three weeks before it burst.

State officials received a complaint about flood waters from Kaloko Reservoir and at least one official was investigating fears of a dam breach before the dam came down Tuesday, according to the Sierra Club's Hawai'i chapter.

State Attorney General Mark Bennett said yesterday he was aware of an exchange of e-mails between state officials and the Sierra Club and was including it in his investigation of the failure of the dam.

"What happened several weeks before the catastrophic failure is something we will be looking into," he said.

He declined to comment further.

In a telephone message on the Sierra Club's Bluewater Hotline late on Feb. 21, a Kaua'i resident said she was concerned there was a breach at Kaloko dam above her property because a 50-foot wall of muddy water had careened past her house, destroying a bridge, said Melody Heidel, Sierra Club's conservation organizer.

The environmental group notified the state's departments of Health and Land and Natural Resources on Feb. 22.

"We received a message yesterday from a Kaua'i resident that the Kaloko Reservoir had been breached," Heidel wrote in an e-mail addressed to DLNR's "info" address and to Gary Ueunten at the state Department of Health's Clean Water office on Kaua'i. "The resident is concerned that their home is in trouble," she wrote.

Heidel said she never received a response from DLNR, which is responsible for overseeing dams.

Ueunten remained in communication with her.

"I have received reports that the reservoir dam has not breached," he wrote on Feb. 23. "I will forward more information as it becomes available."

Ueunten wrote again.

"I was at the Kaloko Reservoir on Tuesday and the dam is intact," he wrote on March 10.

Heidel wrote back, asking whether the rain, expected to continue over the weekend, would have an effect on the reservoir, and Ueunten responded on March 11.

"The Kaloko Reservoir is well below the top of the dam and the water levels are managed," he wrote.

He wrote that perhaps the flood had been caused by debris that had dammed a stream.

Dennis Lau, chief of the Health Department's Clean Water Branch, said yesterday he was aware that Ueunten had looked into a complaint.

"I know he checked with the people up there at Pflueger who were monitoring it," Lau said. "And they said everything was OK."

Ueunten said yesterday he had been asked not to comment.

Lau said Ueunten's area of expertise was water quality, and he was not qualified to determine dams' structural stability.

"Our guy is not an inspector for dam safety. His job is to investigate water pollution complaints," Lau said.

DLNR did not respond yesterday to requests for information about the Sierra Club complaint.

Reach Karen Blakeman at kblakeman@honoluluadvertiser.com.