Safety of Rio Grande Dams in Question

For Immediate Release

Contact: 

Kirsten Stade (202) 265-7337

Safety of Rio Grande Dams in Question

U.S. Agency Sued to Disclose Flooding Maps, Emergency Plans and Dam Conditions

WASHINGTON - The safety of two large international storage dams on the Rio Grande
River and the adequacy of emergency plans in the event of failure are at
the heart of a lawsuit filed today by Public Employees for
Environmental Responsibility (PEER). A federal border agency's refusal
to release repair status reports, inundation maps and preparedness
plans leaves communities on both sides of the border in the dark about
chances of and damage from flooding due to dam and levee breaks.

This
little-known agency called the United States Section, International
Boundary and Water Commission (USIBWC) implements border treaties with
Mexico and, in so doing, jointly operates several international dams and
water treatment plants along the border. Using criteria developed by
the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the USIBWC itself has acknowledged
that Falcon and Amistad Dams are in "urgent" and "high priority" need of
repair, respectively. The rating for Amistad Dam, which is riddled
with sinkholes, means "The likelihood of failure ... is too high to assure
public safety." If the Amistad Dam were to fail, nearly 5 million
acre-feet of water would be released. Falcon Dam also has a history of
foundation seepage and there are serious questions about its overall
stability.

PEER filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)
request for materials about these dams and Rio Grande flood control
levees but the agency refused to release especially pertinent
information, including -

  • More than 75 inundation maps,
    showing what areas will be flooded following dam failure. USIBWC claims
    the maps are "deliberative" in nature and therefore not subject to
    release;
  • A 2009 report issued by a panel of technical advisors
    regarding the condition of Amistad Dam. USIBWC withheld the entire
    document as "related solely to the internal personnel rules and
    practices of an agency";
  • Much of the Emergency Action Plan was
    blacked out, including the "Guidance for Determining the Emergency
    Level"; "Notifications and Emergency Service Contacts"; "Location and
    Vicinity Maps"; "Summary of People/Structures at Greatest Risk"; and
    "Reservoir Elevation Area-Capacity Data". There is even a partial
    redaction in the section titled "Directions to Dam." In the absence of
    such information, the public is urged to call 911 in the event of an
    emergency.

"A map is not a pre-decisional document. This
material should be posted on the agency website; we should not have to
sue to get it," stated PEER Senior Counsel Paula Dinerstein, who filed
the complaint, noting that federal regulations and guidance direct
federal agencies to share emergency preparedness information with
affected local communities. "How can communities plan when they are
being denied basic information about how weak the structures are and
what areas will likely be flooded?"

The agency did, however,
release materials to PEER that outlined serious concerns about
USIBWC-built levees. One March 26, 2010 report about the newly
reconstructed Presidio Levee concluded that "seepage beneath the
existing embankment represents a serious risk to the levee system during
a 25-year design flood event."

In 2009, USIBWC dismissed its
General Counsel, Robert McCarthy, for reporting safety concerns as well
as serious management breakdowns to outside authorities. PEER is
representing McCarthy whose case is awaiting decision before the U.S.
Merit Systems Protection Board, the tribunal which handles civil service
whistleblower appeals.

"Candor and competence have not been
the hallmarks of this agency," said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch
who has labeled the USIBWC the worst agency in federal service, an
assessment with which its employees seem to agree based upon the
extraordinarily low marks given to agency leadership in the latest Best
Places to Work survey. "As it is currently constituted, the USIBWC
should not be entrusted with public safety responsibilities."

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Read the PEER lawsuit

See dangerous condition of Presidio Levee

Review dam safety problems plaguing USIBWC

View regulations and guidance on openness and local cooperation in emergency planning

Look at the Robert McCarthy whistleblower case 

Examine the abysmal USIBWC scores in 2010 Best Places to Work survey

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Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is a national alliance of local state and federal resource professionals. PEER's environmental work is solely directed by the needs of its members. As a consequence, we have the distinct honor of serving resource professionals who daily cast profiles in courage in cubicles across the country.

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