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E&C Dems Request GAO Review Dam Safety Standards Following Oroville Dam Failure

Apr 19, 2017
Press Release
“The Oroville Dam failure did not come without warning”

Energy and Commerce Committee Democrats sent a letter to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) today to request a review of federal safety standards in evaluating dams during the hydroelectric re-licensing process conducted by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).  The letter comes on the heels of the recent failure at the Oroville Dam in California, which raised questions about the deficiencies in FERC’s safety review process and concerns over the potential for loss of life and severe property damage. 

The request was made by all six California Democrats on the committee: Anna Eshoo (D-CA), Doris Matsui (D-CA), Jerry McNerney (D-CA), Tony Cárdenas (D-CA), Raul Ruiz (D-CA), and Scott Peters (D-CA), as well as full committee Ranking Member Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ), Energy Subcommittee Ranking Member Bobby Rush (D-IL) and Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Ranking Member Diana DeGette (D-CO).

“The Oroville Dam failure did not come without warning,” the nine E&C Committee Democrats wrote in their letter to GAO.

The members pointed to the fact that in 2005 the Sierra Club, the Friends of the River and the South Yuba Citizens League filed formal motions with FERC arguing that the agency should require the facility’s licensees to install a concrete-lined emergency spillway as part of the relicensing of the dam.   FERC denied this motion, asserting that the emergency spillway was adequate to handle up to 350,000 cubic feet of water per second (cfs).  A July 2006 memo from John Onderdonk, then a senior civil engineer for FERC, stated that the emergency spillway ‘would perform as designed’ and that sediment resulting from erosion would be insignificant.

“As climate change alters weather patterns, the risk of similar failures rises significantly,” the members continued in their letter to GAO.  “The twin-pronged threat of aging dams and climate change presents a real crisis for dam safety in the United States.  The Oroville incident suggests that FERC’s process for reviewing and assessing dam safety facilities during the relicensing process may have serious deficiencies.” 

To help better understand FERC’s Dam Safety Inspections program, E&C Democrats asked GAO to conduct a review of the program including questions on:

  • What policies and procedures govern FERC’s safety assessment of dams and related dam facilities during the relicensing process?  What compliance, monitoring, and assurance provisions ensure safe and complete assessments are conducted?
  • What models, computer simulations and other analytical tools are used by FERC to evaluate anticipated dam performance, establish ranges of safe operation for a dam and its associated facilities, and assess potential hazards in case of dam failure? 
  • To what extent does FERC take into account changing weather patterns, changes in hydrologic patterns, or altered morphology of the river, streams, and reservoir associated with the dam and hydropower facility due to erosion, sedimentation, weatherization, seismic activity, or other natural phenomenon during the re-licensing process?
  • Where FERC staff engineers find evidence of a safety failure, what consequences does the dam owner face, if any? 
  • How does FERC evaluate alternative assessments of dam and facility performance that may be submitted by different interested parties during re-licensing?
  • What are the respective roles and responsibilities of the licensee, the state, and FERC in the evaluation of the structural integrity and anticipated performance of a dam and its related facilities during the licensing and re-licensing process? 

Earlier this year the spillways of the Oroville Dam began to fail, leading to the evacuation of 188,000 people living near the dam.

A copy of the letter to GAO is available here.