JOHNSONBURG — As construction continues on the $135 million East Branch Dam safety project, downstream residents continue to doubt their safety.
Owned and operated by the Pittsburgh District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, slightly after East Branch Dam was impounded in 1952, when a void the size of a school bus was created due to the seepage in the dam. It was grouted for the last 60 years and monitored.
However in 2008, studies showed an increased risk for internal erosion across the embankment. The pool was lowered and the lengthy process of finding and implementing a solution began.
Years of study and design determined the best way to address the issue was to build a seepage barrier, or “cutoff wall.”
The prep work started in 2011; contract awarded in 2014; and construction is set to be completed no earlier than June 2019.
In this time, stakeholder meetings and updates, similar to the one Wednesday night at Johnsonburg Area High School, have been held to update residents on the project. For some time, safety has been a question on the minds of residents downstream.
When asked again Wednesday, Elk County Emergency Management Director Mike McAllister said he can hardly imagine a scenario where EMA would not have sufficient lead time to notify the residents of nearby Glen Hazel or its further downstream neighbors, Johnsonburg and Ridgway.
Since 2008, East Branch Dam has been labeled the most instrumented dam in the Pittsburgh District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It is also manned 24 hours per day, 365 days per year.
“As soon as the Corps identifies something could potentially impact off campus, they’re keeping us in the loop. At that point we’re looking to see the notification to the general public,” McAllister said. “Barring an earthquake or terrorism, we should not be knocking on your door or notifying you when the water is knee deep at your door.”
In October, residents came to a similar stakeholder meeting with the same concerns.
While a table top exercise between the county and local EMAs, as well as the Army Corps and contractor, has been held to determine what a response would look like and many other exercises have been performed in that time, residents still seem uncertain all are prepared for a catastrophic event.
One man, with a seasonal home in Glen Hazel, continually prodded McAllister, asking if officials would have a firm grasp on how to contact and evacuate those directly in harm’s way if a catastrophic event were to occur?
“We might have a day, two days or a time period to get to your house or those locations that are there,” McAllister said.
McAllister suggested teams of emergency personnel would likely start by going door to door to warn residents, leaving door hangers on those with no response. It would also push warning calls to landline phones. Weather service notifications would also warn residents.
Placement of warning sirens in Johnsonburg, Ridgway, and likely Glen Hazel are still on the table.
As time passed, the area would be shut down, with no traffic coming in or out.
One Army Corps representative said the probability of failure isn’t likely, but the agency is still planning ahead.
While the dam remains at a reduced pool for safety issues, Army Corps estimates show that the consequences of flooding from a dam breach at normal high pool runs the risk of endangering approximately 3,300 people; 2,000 structures; and $423 million in land and property.
Currently, the construction project is 26 percent complete.
As of April 1, nearly 14,000 trucks have brought nearly 330,000 tons of stone to the site to build a work platform across the dam.
While East Branch resident engineer Kim Warner said, “Construction traffic and truck traffic is contingent on what is going on,” construction traffic for now has slowed to about one-tenth of its former level.
Drill rigs are now on site, making exploratory holes to sample stability. The holes are also being used to grout any unknown fissures that may exist in the dam. This work will continue until early 2017.
“If we’re not good neighbors, we want to hear from you,” the Corps’ District Commander Col. Bernard R. Lindstrom said.
“If we’re not doing something or we’re doing something that is causing angst or discomfort that we can address –please, please let us know. We realize that its not just a construction project it has social impact, environmental impact, economic impact....It affects many communities.”