Finding the holes in the dam

Sullied stream: Tighter building oversight needed to avoid future water pollution disasters.

March 05, 2001

THE DEVASTATION to one of Maryland's finest natural trout breeding streams from the collapse of a sediment pond dam may eventually be overcome. The dam will be rebuilt, the Cecil County stream purged of muck, the gravelly bottom restored, the fishery restocked.

But concerns linger over questionable decisions at the federally supervised site and the sluggish response to the December blowout of the 15-foot-high pond retaining wall.

There are decidedly conflicting views of the problems.

Principal blame is placed on the lack of sealing gaskets for the overflow pipe, which leaked and eventually undermined the dam and polluted the tributary. But the dam's subcontractor denies gaskets were missing.

State dam experts say the builder used flexible metal pipe, more prone to failure than sturdier, but costlier, concrete pipe.

Building the dam first, leaving a hole to install the pipe, instead of building the dam around the pipe, weakened the structure, state engineers say. The contractor says that initial mistake was detected and corrected.

Furthermore, authorities say the sediment pond wasn't built until topsoil had been applied and likely already washed into the trout stream.

The topsoil was to cover a hazardous-waste Superfund cleanup site, where chemicals in a former landfill are supposed to be naturally breaking down into harmless elements. No chemicals have leaked into the holding pond and then into the stream. It was a problem of sediment control, not chemical contamination.

The bad news is that it took years of stocking the stream with trout for the sensitive fish to establish natural breeding grounds. And that achievement was wiped out by inadequate oversight of the project by federal agencies.

Superfund remediation projects are exempt from state dam permits and inspection. This episode near Elkton strongly suggests that they should not be.

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