Tragedy ushered three bills on dam safety

On this anniversary of the Ka Loko tragedy, it is fitting for our community to pause in remembrance of those who lost their lives in the flood. It is a time also to renew our commitment to do everything in our power to avoid any such similar calamity in the future.

For the Hawai‘i State Legislature, receiving a careful analysis of what went wrong was the first step in developing a plan to assure dam and reservoir safety across the state. The day after the dam break, Rep. Hermina Morita (District 14: Hanalei, Anahola, Kealia, Kapa‘a, Waipouli) introduced House Concurrent Resolution 192. It requested that the Hawai‘i Attorney General appoint an independent, impartial Special Deputy Attorney General to investigate the collapse. That resolution was adopted by both House and Senate in April. In July, Honolulu attorney Robert Carson Godbey was appointed to the position. Godbey’s comprehensive report was released in January, shortly before the 2007 Legislature opened (see www.kalokodam.net/report.html).

Based on the results of the investigation, three bills were written that are currently working their way through the Legislature. They would establish greater oversight of reservoirs and dams by state officials, under the administration of the Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR); incorporate tougher enforcement provisions for owners and managers; and provide funding mechanisms to do so. All three measures would amend an existing law, Chapter 179D of the Hawai‘i Revised Statutes, relating to Dams and Reservoirs.

The purpose of the first two bills, HB1905 HD3 and SB1946 SD2 is “to ensure the health, safety, and welfare of the citizens of the State by creating a program for monitoring and enforcing the safety of dams and reservoirs throughout the State so that we are never again faced with the tragedy like the Ka Loko dam breach.”

One or both of the bills authorizes the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) to catalog and maintain an inventory of all regulated dams and reservoirs in the state and to inspect them, whether on public or private property, without the need for prior notice or permission by the property owner. If the DLNR believes that dangerous conditions exist as a result of construction, modification, maintenance, or repair, or if the dam is threatened by a flood or other natural disaster, the department is granted the power, in the interest of public health, safety, and welfare, to take immediate steps to protect life and property. In addition, the DLNR would be required to submit an annual report to the Legislature about inspections, evaluations and other data regarding the effectiveness of the state’s dam and reservoir safety program.

Requirements are also included for owners of dams and reservoirs to maintain operation and maintenance plans; to establish emergency action plans for dams with a potential to cause loss of life; and to maintain access to the sites for inspections, even under adverse weather conditions. Administrative penalties are not to exceed $25,000 per day of a violation.

The third bill, HB652 HD2, is an appropriation bill. It creates a dam safety special fund, administered by the BLNR, to provide training for both staff and dam owners; conduct the inspection programs, prepare public information materials, provide coordination assistance in emergencies, and generally perform the tasks necessary to assure the safety of dams and reservoirs throughout our state.

All three of the bills have passed the House in which they were introduced and have crossed over to the other legislative body for consideration. You can read the bills in their entirety and follow their progress. Click “Bill Status & Docs” at the Hawai‘i State Legislature site: www.capitol.hawaii.gov. You can also call my office toll free from Kaua‘i for more information about these bills: 274-4141 ext 66030.

• Gary Hooser is Senate Majority Leader, representing the 7th Senatorial District, covering Kaua‘i and Ni‘ihau. He is a resident of Wailua and writes a biweekly column exclusive to The Garden Island.

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