SHELBYVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Created by impounding a local creek in the early 1960s, Guist Creek Lake borders neighborhoods, rolling farmland and a ribbon of U.S. 60 east of Shelbyville.

Regulators consider the dam that contains the lake's 317 acres to have a "high-hazard potential" – not due to concerns about its condition, but because they believe a failure is likely to result in significant property damage and even death.

Yet the Guist Creek reservoir is a rarity among similar dams in Kentuckiana: it has an emergency plan in the event of a breach or other emergency.

In recent years, federal and state safety officials and regional engineering groups have urged owners of high-hazard dams to adopt emergency plans. The National Dam Safety Review Board "strongly recommends" states require the plans, and it advises owners of high-hazard dams to prepare them "[r]egardless of state law or regulation."

But those recommendations are falling short in Kentucky and Indiana, according to documents obtained under both states' open records laws and an independent evaluation by the Association of State Dam Safety Officials.

Most high-hazard dams overseen by the two states lack the plans, which typically include emergency contact information, detailed directions for first responders, evacuation maps and contact information for residents in the probable path of flood waters.

A review of data for emergency action plans, or EAPs, found that in Kentucky:

  • 33 percent of all state-regulated, high-hazard dams have EAPs -- 8th lowest in the United States, according to 2013 data compiled by the Association of State Dam Safety Officials
  • Only 8 percent (14 of 179) of the high-hazard dams regulated by the state Division of Water have EAPs, according to documents provided under the Kentucky Open Records Act in November; Division of Water officials, however, say the figures are actually higher
  • The Kentucky Department for Natural Resources has received a "small number of plans" submitted voluntarily for the 131 coal-industry dams it regulates, but the agency did not provide specific data
  • The National Performance of Dams Program database, administered by Stanford University, shows no emergency plans for 77 dams listed as regulated by the natural resources department; none of the 59 dams regulated by the Mine Safety and Health Administration has EAPs

And in Indiana:

  • 22 percent of state-regulated, high-hazard dams have EAPs -- 5th lowest in the U.S., according to the Association of State Dam Safety Officials
  • 25 percent (59 of 240) of the high-hazard dams regulated by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources have EAPs, according to documents provided under the Indiana Access to Public Records Act

The plans help lower the risk during dam failures, said Lori Spragens, executive director of the Lexington, Ky.-based Association of State Dam Safety Officials, which supports making EAPs mandatory.

"Without significant emergency action plans in place … if dams fail there's just a likelihood that people aren't going to know. They're not going to get out of harm's way," she said.

Neither state requires emergency plans for the highest-risk dams, and efforts to add more are complicated by large numbers of dams in both states that are privately owned – from homeowners' associations to farmers.

Emergency action plans are the "last stopgap of public safety," said Jared Huss, a South Bend, Ind., engineer who helped author a 2010 review of Indiana dams for the American Society of Civil Engineers.

"These really are the most low-cost safety mechanisms that we can put into place," Huss said in an interview.

(Engineers would stand to gain financially if the plans were mandated.)

The plans are in place for some of Kentucky's most well-known dams – Wolf Creek Dam on Lake Cumberland, for example, and dams at Nolin and Rough River lakes. In all, 19 federally-regulated dams owned by the U.S. Army, Corps of Engineers and Tennessee Valley Authority have EAPs, according to the Stanford database.

But most dams are much smaller. They're the responsibility of local governments, private landowners and businesses. While Kentucky and Indiana state agencies largely regulate those dams' permitting and inspections, they can't insist that they have emergency plans.

At least 22 states – but not Kentucky and Indiana – require EAPs for the riskiest dams. Legislation mandating the plans has failed to advance in the Kentucky General Assembly in recent years; no bills requiring the plans have been filed in Indiana's legislature, said Ken Smith, assistant director of the Indiana Division of Water.

The low rates of plans in Kentucky and Indiana are "very concerning to us as an association and should be to the citizens of the states and the policy makers in the states," Spragens said.

"An area of concern"

There were at least 400 failures or near failures of dams in the United States from 1990 to 2010, resulting in 16 deaths, according to the dam safety association.

No one died when two dams in Kentucky, and four in Indiana, failed during that time. But a partial collapse of Treasure Lake in Boone County, Ky., in 1993 damaged large sections of nearby roads and stranded residents, and more than 300 gallons of coal slurry drained into the Big Sandy and Ohio rivers when a Martin County, Ky., impoundment broke in 2000.

"It is a fact that we have not seen that many failures," Spragens said. "But there's nothing that says that means there won't be failures in the future. Dams continue to age and without proper upkeep and rehabilitation, the likelihood of failure gets bigger every day."

The 1960s marked a spike in dam building in Kentucky and Indiana. The vast majority of dams in the two states whose completion dates are tracked by the federal National Inventory of Dams were built before 1980 – 88 percent in Indiana and 83 percent in Kentucky.

The American Society of Civil Engineers' Indiana section has called the lack of required EAPs an "area of concern." The society's Kentucky membership recommended in a report card on the state's infrastructure two years ago that the plans be developed for all of the state's high-hazard dams.

"Just from a planning perspective, a dam owner needs to have a plan on what to do if there's a problem," said Jon Keeling, a Lexington, Ky., engineer and member of the Kentucky engineering group who worked on the 2011 report.

Kentucky has used $159,250 in federal safety grants over the past two years to beef up emergency plans for dams regulated by the Division of Water. Prior to the grant, 7 percent of the high-hazard dams regulated by the division had EAPs, but the plans are now in place for 35 percent of those dams, said Shane Cook, a division engineering supervisor for dam safety.

Cook said new technology, including software that eliminates the need for costly surveys of downstream areas, will allow the state to create more EAPs. Within a year, Cook predicts the plans will be in place for up to 60 percent of high-hazard dams.

"This time next year this number will be quite a bit higher," Cook said.

Indiana officials also are optimistic that more EAPs will be developed in the coming years. There were "zero" plans for high-hazard dams a decade ago, but since then nearly 60 have been adopted and an additional 40 more are expected within two years, said Smith, of the state Division of Water.

Using federal and state funds, Indiana state government has worked to draft the plans for publicly-owned, high-hazard dams and is now targeting private dams as part of a broad effort that involves state, federal and local agencies, Smith said.

But he noted that Indiana is among the states without laws requiring the plans.

"That gives those programs a great leg up," Smith said. "We have to encourage volunteer creation of these things, and that makes it a little more difficult for our state and Kentucky to show nice numbers."

A legislative answer?

Legislation to require EAPs for high-hazard dams died in the Kentucky General Assembly in recent years.

In 2007, then-Rep. Robin Webb introduced a resolution that would have required the state Environmental and Public Protection Cabinet to develop regulations making the plans mandatory for high- and significant-hazard dams. The measure died in the House budget committee.

Two years later, Webb and fellow eastern Kentucky Sen. Ray Jones revived the push before the effort stalled in the Senate. Jones, a self-described "pro-coal" lawmaker, blames coal, business and anti-regulatory interests for derailing the resolution.

At the same time, Jones said, he doesn't consider the regulations he proposed to be unfriendly to business. A significant failure at a coal-related dam would be "another rallying cry to crack down on coal," he said.

"It is a legitimate issue," said Jones, D-Pikeville. "If you have some of these impoundments fail, people are going to die."

Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, said federal regulators with the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement are discussing mandating the plans. At the state level, he said, his organization is "open for a dialogue" about requiring EAPs – as long as they apply to all high-hazard dams.

"We can't single out coal," he said.

"Legislation would be helpful," said Smith, the Indiana official. But, he added, the cost for a dam owner to create an EAP can run as high as $15,000.

"Given what the costs might be to individuals," he said, "I'm not certain I'd expect to see legislation like that any time soon."

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