Residents fight for details of emergency plan for dam failure

TROY, NC (WBTV) - Details of a federally-mandated plan meant to help protect residents who live near dams along the Yadkin River are being hidden by government regulators and the company that owns the dams.

Alcoa Power Generating Inc. owns four dams on the Yadkin River, stretching through Davidson, Davie, Rowan, Stanley and Montgomery Counties.

The dams are regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which requires operators of dams regulated by the agency to submit an emergency action plan.

An On Your Side investigation has found that details of the emergency plan are secret.

Our investigation began after a call from residents in the Carolina Forest community in Montgomery County. The neighborhood borders Lake Tillery, which sits below one of the Aloca-owned dams.

They began asking questions after a series of evacuation signs went up in their neighborhood. Before the signs went up, the residents thought their homes would be unaffected by any flood waters.

When the neighbors started requested documents from their county's emergency management office, they discovered a map that showed their homes would be underwater in the event of a total dam failure.

Wesley McCaskill is among the concerned neighbors.

"If something was to happen to that dam—and it's 98 years old—it said that it would send a wall of water to our house and it'd be there in like 12 minutes.

Once McCaskill and his neighbors saw the inundation map, they requested a complete copy of the emergency action plan from county emergency management officials. At first, the county said it would make a copy of the plan available but changed course after attorneys for Alcoa sent a letter demanding the plan be kept secret.

Attorneys for the company argued that the plan could not be released because the document has been classified as critical energy infrastructure information by FERC.

Officials for several state regulatory agencies cited the same reason when denying a request from WBTV for a copy of the Alcoa EAP.

But a spokeswoman for FERC said the plan could be released, at least in part, so long as the person receiving the document signed a non-disclosure agreement.

That caveat was overlooked in the letter from Alcoa attorneys.

The lack of transparency on the part of Alcoa and local government officials is nearly as concerning to McCaskill as what would happen in the event of a dam failure.

"What kind of plan did these people have?" McCaskill asked."I would like to know!"

In a statement to On Your Side Investigates, company vice president Mark Gross said dam safety is a top priority.

"Our dams are well maintained and frequently inspected. Any type of dam failure is incredibly unlikely, but it is our responsibility to develop emergency plans so local agencies are prepared to respond quickly and appropriately to any incidents," Gross said. "We have worked closely with these agencies to plan ahead and have posted signs directly below the dams showing people how to safely evacuate the area. We have also developed an early warning system for residents directly below the dams and distributed brochures to educate residents on what to do in case of an emergency."

But when pressed for more details about which neighborhoods in the five-county area that would be in the path of flood waters if a dam were to fail, the company sent the exact same, non-descript, language from the pamphlet it sends to all residents.

"The early warning zones are areas that are in close proximity to the downstream area of a dam and therefore need to be notified first of a potential problem.  They are not solely based on the magnitude of the failure.  There are priority zones in each of the five counties surrounding the project: Montgomery, Stanly, Rowan, Davidson and Davie," the company said in both its pamphlet and in response to a question from WBTV.

Officials with Montgomery County's emergency management office refused multiple requests for an interview and did not answer any questions about what preparations, if any, the county has made to respond to a dam failure.

The dams along the Yadkin River are rated as 'high hazard', which means a large number of people would be impacted by a failure.

The company said it his happy to meet with anyone who has concerns about a possible dam failure. Residents may contact Alcoa by calling 888-886-1063.

For his part, McCaskill said the revelation that his home would be impacted by a dam failure has made it virtually impossible to sell his home. He said he cannot find an appraiser who is willing to appraise his property until more details are revealed about the emergency action plan.

McCaskill and his neighbors also say the revelation has hurt their property values and have filed protests with the county tax assessor's office.

"I don't see much of a plan at this point. Other than not coming back," McCaskill said. "I really don't want to be up here anymore."

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