Investigation finds some unsafe dams in Western Pennsylvania

Western Pennsylvania has dozens of dams in need of major repairs. The state says some of them are unsafe – posing a potential threat to nearby homeowners. But some people living downstream from the dams had no idea they are potentially hazardous.Watch the full report in the video player above. In September 2018, more than 100 residents in Derry, Westmoreland County, were ordered to evacuate after officials warned the Lower Ridge Dam could collapse.“I’m just getting told that we are to evacuate immediately, to get to higher ground, so that’s what I’m doing. I’m getting my stuff and my kids,” homeowner Angela Wedow said at the time.Records obtained by Action News Investigates show the Lower Ridge Dam is one of three in Derry that the state Department of Environmental Protection calls deficient, meaning they need major repairs. Another is the 120-year-old Ethel Springs Dam, just down the street from Derry High School.For the past four years, inspectors pointed out the telephone pole and guard rail on the dam crest leaning downstream. They said that shows the dam should be “closely monitored” due to “possible slope movement.”Inspectors also expressed concern about cracks that continue to appear in the road that goes over the dam crest, despite repeated repaving. Carnegie Mellon Civil Engineering professor Dave Dzombak said cracks on the dam crest can allow water to seep into the dam structure. “They can create pressures that might blow out part of the earthen structure and not necessarily lead to failure of the dam, but put the dam at greater risk,” said. Action News Investigates shared the inspection reports with residents who would be at risk if the dam failed. “It’s frightening. It’s very frightening, because I am in the line of a potential flood,” said Rita Hohl of Derry.The creek from the dam’s spillway runs right next to Hohl’s backyard. And if the dam breaks, she said, the creek would become a raging river.“It would be catastrophic for me. It would flood; it would flood my home,” she said.Connie McDevitt also lives downstream from the Derry dam. “I’m very concerned and I’m hoping somebody somewhere does their job,” she said.The Derry Municipal Authority owns the dam. The authority refused an interview request from Action News Investigates. In a statement, authority manager Amy Forsha said there are “no safety concerns” with the dam. She also said that the authority “has been working with the DEP to improve the dam and bring it up to the current dam design standards.”The Derry dam is a so-called high hazard dam. According to the DEP, the collapse of a high hazard dam could cause loss of life. DEP records show that there are 229 high hazard dams in Western Pennsylvania. Thirty-four of them have physical deficiencies that require improved maintenance or renovation, and DEP said 16 of those deficient dams are unsafe.Click here to see an interactive map of the deficient dams in western Pennsylvania. DEP refused to release names or locations of unsafe dams, saying that could jeopardize national security. Among the deficient dams are Lake George at the Hidden Valley resort in Somerset County. Katie Buchan, a spokeswoman for Seven Springs, which owns the dam, said they are monitoring two mossy areas of the dam as DEP requested. Also, she said Seven Springs made repairs to the dam as DEP recommended following prior inspections.Somerset Lake, with another deficient dam that is state-owned, was drained last year and is now being repaired as part of an $8 million project.Asked if the condition of deficient dams is a crisis, Dzombak said, “It’s an ongoing one of slowly increasing risk as we don’t maintain these structures.”Another deficient dam, Hull Plan Lake in Butler, is surrounded by homes. DEP inspectors found concerns, such as a dilapidated spillway, as far back as 2009. A 2014 inspection report said the dam was in “poor condition,” but the most recent inspection in 2018 shows the concerns still have not been addressed.If something catastrophic were to happen at the Hull dam, several homes downstream could be damaged or destroyed. Those homeowners did not want to be interviewed, but when told about the inspection reports, one homeowner said she was disturbed and alarmed.Action News Investigates asked the DEP why nothing has been done after a decade of negative inspections.“I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily a problem. Inspections that are done yearly have brought concern,” said DEP spokesperson Tom Decker. “We would prefer to work with the dam owners to help bring them into compliance with the regulations.”He said Hull was named a high hazard dam just two years ago. Action News Investigates repeatedly contacted the president of the homeowners association that owns the dam, but got no response.Dams may look beautiful, but experts said if they are not maintained they can be dangerous.“Like any man-made structure, if you’re not on top of it, it has the potential to fail,” Decker said.Fixing deficient dams is not cheap. A report three years ago by the American Society of Civil Engineers said the cost in just Pennsylvania totals more than $1 billion.

Western Pennsylvania has dozens of dams in need of major repairs. The state says some of them are unsafe – posing a potential threat to nearby homeowners. But some people living downstream from the dams had no idea they are potentially hazardous.

Watch the full report in the video player above.

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In September 2018, more than 100 residents in Derry, Westmoreland County, were ordered to evacuate after officials warned the Lower Ridge Dam could collapse.

“I’m just getting told that we are to evacuate immediately, to get to higher ground, so that’s what I’m doing. I’m getting my stuff and my kids,” homeowner Angela Wedow said at the time.

Records obtained by Action News Investigates show the Lower Ridge Dam is one of three in Derry that the state Department of Environmental Protection calls deficient, meaning they need major repairs. Another is the 120-year-old Ethel Springs Dam, just down the street from Derry High School.

For the past four years, inspectors pointed out the telephone pole and guard rail on the dam crest leaning downstream. They said that shows the dam should be “closely monitored” due to “possible slope movement.”

Inspectors also expressed concern about cracks that continue to appear in the road that goes over the dam crest, despite repeated repaving.

Carnegie Mellon Civil Engineering professor Dave Dzombak said cracks on the dam crest can allow water to seep into the dam structure. “They can create pressures that might blow out part of the earthen structure and not necessarily lead to failure of the dam, but put the dam at greater risk,” said.

Action News Investigates shared the inspection reports with residents who would be at risk if the dam failed. “It’s frightening. It’s very frightening, because I am in the line of a potential flood,” said Rita Hohl of Derry.

The creek from the dam’s spillway runs right next to Hohl’s backyard. And if the dam breaks, she said, the creek would become a raging river.

“It would be catastrophic for me. It would flood; it would flood my home,” she said.

Connie McDevitt also lives downstream from the Derry dam. “I’m very concerned and I’m hoping somebody somewhere does their job,” she said.

The Derry Municipal Authority owns the dam. The authority refused an interview request from Action News Investigates.

In a statement, authority manager Amy Forsha said there are “no safety concerns” with the dam. She also said that the authority “has been working with the DEP to improve the dam and bring it up to the current dam design standards.”

The Derry dam is a so-called high hazard dam. According to the DEP, the collapse of a high hazard dam could cause loss of life. DEP records show that there are 229 high hazard dams in Western Pennsylvania.

Thirty-four of them have physical deficiencies that require improved maintenance or renovation, and DEP said 16 of those deficient dams are unsafe.

Click here to see an interactive map of the deficient dams in western Pennsylvania.

DEP refused to release names or locations of unsafe dams, saying that could jeopardize national security. Among the deficient dams are Lake George at the Hidden Valley resort in Somerset County.

Katie Buchan, a spokeswoman for Seven Springs, which owns the dam, said they are monitoring two mossy areas of the dam as DEP requested. Also, she said Seven Springs made repairs to the dam as DEP recommended following prior inspections.

Somerset Lake, with another deficient dam that is state-owned, was drained last year and is now being repaired as part of an $8 million project.

Asked if the condition of deficient dams is a crisis, Dzombak said, “It’s an ongoing one of slowly increasing risk as we don’t maintain these structures.”

Another deficient dam, Hull Plan Lake in Butler, is surrounded by homes. DEP inspectors found concerns, such as a dilapidated spillway, as far back as 2009. A 2014 inspection report said the dam was in “poor condition,” but the most recent inspection in 2018 shows the concerns still have not been addressed.

If something catastrophic were to happen at the Hull dam, several homes downstream could be damaged or destroyed. Those homeowners did not want to be interviewed, but when told about the inspection reports, one homeowner said she was disturbed and alarmed.

Action News Investigates asked the DEP why nothing has been done after a decade of negative inspections.

“I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily a problem. Inspections that are done yearly have brought concern,” said DEP spokesperson Tom Decker. “We would prefer to work with the dam owners to help bring them into compliance with the regulations.”

He said Hull was named a high hazard dam just two years ago. Action News Investigates repeatedly contacted the president of the homeowners association that owns the dam, but got no response.

Dams may look beautiful, but experts said if they are not maintained they can be dangerous.

“Like any man-made structure, if you’re not on top of it, it has the potential to fail,” Decker said.

Fixing deficient dams is not cheap. A report three years ago by the American Society of Civil Engineers said the cost in just Pennsylvania totals more than $1 billion.