Kaloko dam safety fixture disputed
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Investigations into the cause of the fatal Kaloko dam disaster are focused on changes that have been made to the structure of the century-old structure, and what happened to its most important safety feature — its spillway.
Numerous state and federal officials said they have carefully inspected the site and found no spillway, but a representative of principal owner Jimmy Pflueger insists it is there.
"We couldn't find a spillway," said the state adjutant general, Maj. Gen. Robert Lee, of inspections since the dam burst.
He said he didn't yet know whether the spillway had been knocked out during the breach or had been compromised before the dam's failure.
"We were surprised not to find one. We looked," said engineer Ray Kong, of the Army Corps of Engineers.
However, Bill McCorriston, attorney for Pflueger, said he and his team of lawyers inspected the Kaloko dam and reservoir earlier this week and found that the spillway is still intact. McCorriston also said the water levels at the time of the collapse were not at overflow stage but were below the spillway. McCorriston said he believes that the dam's collapse was due to heavy rains and the "fact that it's an old dam."
McCorriston said his information is that no alterations were made to the dam.
"I have great respect for General Lee but our inspection shows that the spillway is still there and intact," McCorriston said.
McCorriston said his client is cooperating with the state investigation, which he hopes is being conducted "objectively and without any preconceived agenda."
The state attorney general's office has hired a University of Hawai'i dam expert, civil engineering professor Horst Brandes, to look into the cause of the dam failure. While Brandes would not comment regarding specifics of his Kaloko inquiry, he said a spillway is a critical feature of any large reservoir.
"It's a safety thing. If it's not there, the water's going all the way to the top of the dam," Brandes said. "Every reservoir should have a spillway."
A Mainland consultant for the state, Joseph Kulikowski, declined comment yesterday. Kulikowski, president of Irvine, Calif.-based Genterra Consultants Inc., is an engineering expert on dams and reservoirs.
Attorney general's investigators also are conducting interviews with many farmers of Kaua'i's north shore and others who have been involved with or are knowledgeable about Kaloko Reservoir and its functions.
Subpoenas being handed out by investigators say the probe is looking into the "alteration of any aspect of the original Kaloko Reservoir, including inlets, outlets, spillways" and other features.
State Attorney General Mark Bennett declined to respond when asked whether the investigation is focusing on the owners of the Kaloko dam and the causes of the collapse. Bennett also said he would not comment on specific subpoenas but confirmed that his office is issuing new subpoenas as part of its investigation.
Pflueger is principal of Pflueger Partners, which has operated the reservoir for many years. A smaller portion of the reservoir, which does not include the dam, is owned by the Mary N. Lucas Trust, of which Pflueger is a bene-ficiary as a grandson of Mary Lucas. Carroll Taylor, the trustee of the Mary Lucas Trust, declined comment yesterday, saying he was unaware that new subpoenas had been issued.
County tax office records show Pflueger bought the 110 acres containing most of the reservoir from C. Brewer & Co. in 1989.
The Brewer plantation Kilauea Sugar Co. built the reservoir in 1890. It is sometimes referred to in records as Koloko or Ka Loko. Its dam across the Wailapa Stream valley is listed by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources dam inventory as 44 feet high. Various estimates in recent days have placed its capacity at between 400 million and 460 million gallons.
In the pre-dawn hours of March 14, Kaloko's dam burst, dumping — according to a state DLNR estimate — 420 million gallons into the Wailapa Stream valley. The churning flood ripped out trees as it went and drove them through pastures until it reached the streamside communities near Kuhio Highway. It ripped away Ed Doty's shed, smashed across the Morita Reservoir dam, surged over the highway, and then went through a rural neighborhood until it came to homes where seven people slept on the Bruce and Cyndee Fehring property. The bodies of three of the seven have been found.
Government agencies early on started looking into the cause of the dam break. The spillway issue has emerged as a crucial one. Brandes has a copy of an early plantation map that shows the dam's "overflow." Farmers who have worked around Kaloko over the years said it had a functioning spillway as recently as the 1980s.
Army Corps of Engineers investigator Lincoln Gayagas, a civil engineer and emergency operations planner, said he has never heard of a reservoir the size of Kaloko without the safety feature. "It's certainly not a good practice," he said.
Like Kong and Lee, other officials on the scene insist there is none that they can find at Kaloko.
"I've been on the thing (Kaloko) several times, and I haven't seen concrete. I haven't seen evidence of a spillway," said Bob Masuda, deputy director of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, who is overseeing his department's response to the Kaloko dam breach.
Two farmers who have been at the reservoir over the years say the spillway is there, but buried.
Longtime farmer Mike Strong, whose Kahili Farms uses irrigation water from the Kaloko system, said the spillway was covered with soil. "The spillway was covered up in 1998," he said.
He said he complained to Pflueger.
"We were worried about this. We told him, you can't close off the spillway," Strong said.
Allan Rietow, who operated a prawn and papaya farm below Kaloko in partnership with Pflueger from 1977 to 1988, said the spillway is still there, but "it's underground somewhere."
He described it as a low place in the reservoir wall, north of the end of the dam. The spillway was cut from the natural clay of the area and not built of fill material, he said. Where a road to the dam crossed the spillway, it had a concrete slab, he said.
"I saw the spillway overflow at least three times in 10 years, and it functioned perfectly. It was a big spillway. It had to be 20 feet across. The only way I know (to find it) is to grab a backhoe and start digging. You'll find it. It's buried there," Rietow said.
In response to the farmers' statements that the spillway had been covered over, McCorriston reiterated that no alterations had been made to either the dam or the spillway.
Gayagas said investigators are eager to review aerial photos and other documents to learn the original design of the reservoir and to attempt to track its condition over time. He said it is likely that investigators will excavate to locate the spillway.
Masuda said any such excavation would probably be conducted as a part of Brandes' investigation for the attorney general.
DLNR director Peter Young said yesterday he was unaware that there was any work conducted to the Kaloko dam's spillway. Such alterations require a permit from the DLNR; Young said the owners of the Kaloko dam never sought such a permit.
According to Young, the DLNR recently requested maintenance records and other information from dam owners Pflueger and the Mary Lucas Trust but he said the owners have not yet turned over the records.
Young said his office is assisting the attorney general's investigation but he referred all questions regarding that investigation to Bennett.
Young said last week that the state has no record that it ever inspected the Kaloko Reservoir. However, other government agencies have visited the site and conducted investigations there. The county several years ago issued grading violations to Pflueger for extensive earth-moving along the north side of the reservoir, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency conducted its own probe of those events.
While government officials and engineers who worked on a remediation plan conducted studies at the dam, a consent decree in the case makes no mention of the condition of the reservoir or of its spillway.
The EPA yesterday refused to release copies of its investigative report in the grading case. EPA public information officer Dean Higuchi said the agency would do so only in response to a formal application under the Freedom of Information Act.
Kaua'i County Attorney Lani Nakazawa said she would discuss with engineers the release of the county's investigation, but Nakazawa had not responded further by press time.Staff writer Karen Blakeman contributed to this report.