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"Reliably Safe"

The history of one problematic dam in Oregon teaches how not to manage risk

Douglas Larson

Damage Control

In October 1988, shortly after the Eugene Register-Guard got wind of these results, Oregon's Senator Mark Hatfield became involved. At his behest, the Corps dispatched a special team of four senior-level engineers and a consulting concrete expert to Oregon to investigate. The engineers—hand-picked from headquarters staff in Washington, D.C.—worked for the Chief of the Directorate of Engineering and Construction, who had received a $10,000 Presidential award in 1987 for supervising the design and construction of Willow Creek dam, creating an obvious conflict of interest (which journalists and others involved somehow overlooked).

Water%20stains%20on%20damClick to Enlarge ImageOn arrival, the team spent some hours inspecting the dam before reviewing the scientific data. After just a few days of deliberation, the team boldly announced to the news media that "There is no reason for concern regarding the structural safety of the dam. The dam is indeed a reliably safe structure." The engineers then impugned the scientists' research, stating: "Criticism of the [roller-compacted concrete] design and construction concept is not warranted and without merit." And they killed my proposal for aeration by saying, "Despite the presence of hydrogen sulfide gas, there is no evidence that acid is wearing away the dam."

Senator Hatfield's office immediately issued a news release, which in part read: "Allegationsof health and safety problems at Willow Creek were quite serious. After a thorough study by Army experts, it appears reasonable to assert that these concerns were unfounded." On November 17, 1988, the Oregonian, Oregon's largest newspaper, published these declarations in a front-page story headlined: "Dam safe, experts agree."

Further efforts to end the debate quickly followed. Contrary opinion within the Corps was suppressed, and contracts with the outside scientists were not renewed, thus ending what to that point had been collaborative and productive research into the safety of the dam.

In July 1989, the scientists issued their final report, which detailed the deterioration of the roller-compacted concrete, but the Corps refused to release the document to the public. Journalists at the Eugene Register-Guard attempted to obtain a copy by filing a request under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act, but the Department of the Army's Assistant Chief Counsel for Litigation denied the request, claiming that release of the report "could discourage honest and frank discussions within the Corps." The Register-Guard decided not to appeal. The controversial document was, however, released in 1990, but it was appended to the Corps' own final report, which was clearly aimed to discredit the scientists' research methods and findings.

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