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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, May 11, 2006

Kaloko dam danger noted in '84 report

By Jan TenBruggencate and Rick Daysog
Advertiser Staff Writers

LIHU'E, Kaua'i A joint state-federal report issued in 1984 identified problems with the structural stability of the Kaloko Reservoir dam and estimated the cost of repairs at $1.9 million, records disclosed yesterday show.

No records have been found that show repairs or any other follow-up were conducted.

The report was obtained by the attorney for the dam's current owner, retired Honolulu car dealer Jimmy Pflueger, and disclosed by the lawyer yesterday at a Kaua'i County Council meeting. The Kaloko dam failed March 14, causing a massive flood down Wailapa Valley that killed seven people, wiped away at least two homes and other buildings, and left damage estimated in the millions of dollars.

The report states, "The stability of this reservoir is structurally questionable because of the seepage losses observed at the toe of the embankment and the abundant growth of hao, guava and palm trees on the downstream of the embankment."

The report wasn't intended to address dam safety. It was ordered to assess the former Kilauea Sugar Company's irrigation system, which included the Kaloko dam. The report was prepared a decade after the sugar company went out of business to study the use of its irrigation system to support diversified agriculture in the region.

The document is the earliest record that state officials were aware of problems with the dam. In the days and weeks after the breach, state officials said the Department of Land and Natural Resources said they had no record of ever having inspected the Kaloko reservoir dam.

Peter Young, the DLNR's director, said the report was written several years before the passage of the Dam Safety Act of 1987, which gave his department the responsibility for inspecting dams in the state.

Before 1987, the responsibility for inspecting dams went to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Young said.

RECENTLY NOTIFIED

Young said he only became aware of the 1984 report several weeks ago and forwarded a copy to the state attorney general's office, which is conducting an investigation into the causes of the dam's collapse.

Attorney General Mark Bennett was traveling yesterday and could not be reached for comment.

Russell Pang, a spokesman for Gov. Linda Lingle, also declined comment yesterday, saying he has not seen the Department of Agriculture reports.

Young said he did not know why DLNR officials did not follow up on the 1984 report at the time of its writing, saying he hasn't spoken with people involved with the report. He noted that the findings on the Kaloko dam is only about a paragraph in a report, which focused on irrigation systems in the Kilauea area.

"I don't know what action or inaction was done more than 20 years ago," said Young.

Robert Chuck, a former manager and chief engineer for the DLNR's water and land development division during the early 1980s, said that his department wasn't responsible for inspecting of the dams at the time.

Chuck, who retired from the DLNR in 1984, was listed as a contact in notes accompanying the reports but he said he couldn't recall seeing the reports.

IRRIGATION REPORT

Neal Fujiwara, a former Kaua'i district conservationist for the federal Department of Agriculture who was part of the team that worked on the report, also said he couldn't recall the specifics.

But Fujiwara, who retired from the department two years ago, said he's not surprised that no follow-up action was taken since such reports look at issues surrounding the irrigation of farm lands and generally don't include recommendations ordering a government agency to take action.

The report, titled the "Kilauea Agricultural Water Management Study Report," was issued in June 1984. It was prepared by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service and Soil Conservation Service, in cooperation with the DLNR and East Kaua'i Soil and Water Conservation District.

REPORT, NOTES REVEALED

The report and more than 400 pages of accompanying records were obtained by lawyer William McCorriston using the Freedom of Information Act.

McCorriston revealed the document yesterday at a meeting of the Kaua'i County Council, which had called for an update on the Kaloko-Wailapa flood.

Notes associated with the report show that state DLNR engineers participated in preparing the report. The notes also include architectural drawings and a $1.9 million estimate for making repairs to the dam. C. Brewer & Co., which then owned the dam, contested the report in writing and there is no indication any repairs were made.

Executives at C. Brewer & Co., could not be reached for comment. Kent Lucien, trustee for the dissolution of C. Brewer, did not return calls to his office.

The company, a former Big Five firm that controlled much of Hawai'i's agriculture, filed for dissolution about two weeks after the Kaloko disaster, on March 31. When the dissolution is finalized, what was once one of the state's largest landowners will no longer exist.

Ken Kupchak, an attorney for C. Brewer, declined comment, saying he has not seen the 1984 report. Kupchak said the timing of C. Brewer's dissolution had been planned for several years and had nothing to do with the breach of the Kaloko dam.

Carole Wells, a property owner along Wailapa Stream who lost hundreds of valuable hardwood trees in the flood, and whose property is still covered in debris, said responsibility for the breach lies with the state.

"If they would have done their job, even back then, this would not have happened. This whole thing is just so nasty. I really feel we need an independent federal investigation," Wells said.

INDEPENDENT PROBE

The Kaua'i County Council last month passed a resolution calling for an independent investigation of the dam breach disaster, and members yesterday reiterated that demand.

"My preference is to have the federal government conduct the investigation," said Councilman Jay Furfaro.

Councilman Jimmy Tokioka agreed: "How can the state be fair to the people of Kaua'i in doing an investigation that includes themselves (as a subject of the investigation)?"

Attorney General Bennett initially resisted calls for an independent investigation. He has agreed, however, to appoint a special deputy to investigate any civil liability by the state, Kaua'i County or private landowners in the fatal breach of the Kaloko dam.

Bennett would continue to have exclusive control over any potential criminal investigation involving Kaloko, and his office would prosecute if any alleged crimes are discovered.

C. Brewer & Co. sold the majority of the reservoir, including the entire dam, to Pflueger in 1987. McCorriston said that Pflueger would not have bought the property had he known that the Department of Agriculture had raised concerns about the stability of the dam.

"Nobody told Jimmy Pflueger" that there were "significant questions about the stability of the dam" when he bought it from C. Brewer, McCorriston told the Kaua'i County Council. "Why wasn't anybody told about that?" McCorriston said.

McCorriston said frustrated residents have blamed Pflueger for failing to prevent the dam breach, and he said he is frustrated that state investigators have never looked at the state's own possible responsibility.

"There is no independent investigation. From day one, the only focus of the attorney general's investigation has been on Jimmy Pflueger (and on) showing that the state is not responsible," McCorriston said, decrying what he called a "rush to judgment about what the facts are."

Reach Jan TenBruggencate at jant@honoluluadvertiser.com and Rick Daysog at rdaysog@honoluluadvertiser.com.