Long after federal warning, many dams are still unsafe

High on a rugged hillside here, a small, winding stream slaps harmlessly against the rocks as it plunges toward a lovely waterfall near the Toccoa Falls Bible College. Several students relax along the upper banks close to where an earthen dam once stood.

On Nov. 6, 1977, that dam burst, sending a torrent down toward the college, killing 39 persons and sparking a federal safety inspection of hazardous dams across the nation.

Some 2,884 dams were found to be ''unsafe,'' including 132 described as needing emergency action, according to a four-year survey by the US Army Corps of Engineers.

Some kind of emergency action, such as draining reservoirs, had been taken on all but 11 dams as of Sept. 30, 1981, when the corps ended its inspections, according to corps official George Gibson. And a number of states launched dam safety inspection programs as a result of the Corps survey.

But corps records show nearly two-thirds of the dams it found unsafe, more than 1,800 dams, remained unrepaired as of a year ago, when the corps' federal funding on the study ended. Many are near housing developments, and all could result in the loss of lives if they break.

Some of the unsafe dams listed as unrepaired actually have been corrected, but Monitor interviews with federal and state dam safety officials indicate that most are probably not yet repaired.

In addition, these officials say:

* Only 16 states have an adequate dam safety program. And some of those that do are cutting back on funding and staffing.

* Several states still have no dam safety laws, while at least one, Georgia, has made dam safety laws less stringent. The Georgia Legislature has now exempted some 84 ''high hazard'' dams owned or operated by the state from state inspection and has denied funds for their improvement, according to Randy Bass, Georgia's dam safety manager.

''People forget; Toccoa has been five years ago,'' says Mr. Bass.

* Some federal agencies which operate under dam safety criteria twice as tough as the one used by the Corps in their national survey own dozens of dams that don't meet their own standards, says Bill Bivins, chairman of a federal interagency committee on dam safety.

And there are gaping holes in the information about the safety of the nation's dams.

Private owners do not always tell the state when they have repaired an unsafe dam - or even when they build a new one, even when required, according to Russ -Adams, a Missouri dam safety official. State officials are not keeping the Corps abreast of repairs or new findings of unsafe dams because they are not required to do so under federal law. Even federal agencies are not reporting to the interagency committee on which dams unsafe by federal criteria have been improved, Mr. Bivins says.

And each year hundreds of new dams are built, Bivins adds. The result is that no one knows today how many dams are unsafe in the US and just what is being done about it.

Four people were killed this summer when a dam near Estes Park, Colo., broke. The dam had been inspected under a state dam safety law. But Bivins points out that dam safety staffs in many states are too small to keep up an adequate inspection program. Under a new program, the federal government is beginning to help some states buy better dam inspection equipment, he says.

Missouri had 46 dams requiring emergency action, the corps survey found - more than any other state. ''Half of those (46 dams) have had emergency action taken; the other half may still need it,'' says Missouri official Adams. However , he adds, ''All the owners plan to do something.'' But state funding for inspections has been cut back in Missouri since the state's emergency inspection program began in 1980. While the state has nearly 700 dams under its inspection regulations, its inspection staff has been cut from four to two people.

California, said to have one of the nation's best dam safety programs, had no unsafe dams, according to corps study. The state is spending about $3 million a year on its safety program and has a professional staff of 42 to monitor about 1 ,130 dams.

Asked what sparked state interest in the program, James E. Ley, in charge of dam inspections, pointed to the death of some 450 people in 1928 when the St. Francis Dam broke about 45 miles north of Los Angeles. Often it's not until that kind of incident that people really wake up to the problem, he said.

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