Amendments Threaten State Dam Safety (318)

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Changes in state law regulating local dam safety could endanger the lives and property of Tennesseeans, a University of Tennessee-Knoxville civil engineering professor said Wednesday.

 Dr. Bruce Tschantz said Tennessee’s Safe Dams Act of 1973 enabled state inspectors to regulate unsafe, mostly earthen dams and force owners to rebuild them to safe standards.

 However, an amendment to the law last year granted Loudon County exclusion from state dam safety standards, Tschantz said. Other counties are seeking similar exclusions, mostly for economic development reasons, he said.

 The exemptions “take away enforcement responsibilities of the Safe Dams Act, which the public assumes and trusts, and exempts some unsafe, high-hazard dams which could cause great damage or loss of life if they failed,” Tschantz said.

 Tennessee has 1,100 registered dams, including 200 high-hazard dams,Tschantz said.

 Tennessee already has about 60 high-hazard dams that are unregulated because they have agricultural or other exemptions, Tschantz said. Most are earthen dams which may be stressed by recent above-normal rainfall, he said.

 “The ground is already soaked because of extreme wet weather and dams tend to get filled very rapidly even from small amounts of rain,” Tschantz said. “If earthen dams that are not properly designed, constructed or maintained are water filled for extended periods of time, they become saturated, weakened and vulnerable to collapse.”

 Lyle Bentley, chief of the State Safe Dam section, said at least two dams have burst in Tennessee due to recent heavy rains. Residents near another dam at risk of failure in Madison County were evacuated Wednesday, he said.

 At least five people in Tennessee have died in floods from recent heavy rains. March rainfall for most of the state is more than three inches above normal and forecasters predict heavy rains to continue through this week.

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 Contact: Dr. Bruce Tschantz (423-974-7721)