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Last February 7 during heavy rains the Oroville Dam’s concrete spillway failed, launching fears of a complete dam failure, and forcing the evacuation of 188,000 people. As it turned out, government engineers knew for decades that the alternate earthen spillway was unreliable but failed to reinforce it with concrete. As Rep. John Garamendi famously put it, the dirt spillway “worked fine until it had to be used, in which case it didn’t work so well.” One of the government’s first moves was to dam up the flow of information on safety issues. The governor and state water bureaucrats blocked access to the dam’s design specifications, federal inspection reports, technical documents, and other crucial information.
Much of that has now emerged in Independent Forensic Team Report: Oroville Dam Spillway Incident, a 584-page report that chalks up the disaster to “a complex interaction of relatively common physical, human, organizational, and industry factors, starting with the design of the project and continuing until the incident.” On page 59, readers learn that the principal designer for both Oroville spillways “was hired directly from a university post-graduate program, with prior engineering employment experience limited to one or two summers.” And the designer had “no prior professional experience designing spillways” and “no instruction on spillway design” in college coursework. The forensic team “finds it striking that such an inexperienced engineer was given the responsibility of designing the spillways of what is still the tallest dam in the US.”
Taxpayers will find it striking that this massive, detailed report fails to name this non-engineer. Though obviously unqualified and incompetent, this person’s political connections were doubtless strong. Taxpayers could be forgiven for believing that’s why the incompetent grad student got the job and why the expert team keeps the identity a secret. Taxpayers should therefore regard the report as part of the ongoing cover-up.
Did the unqualified person perhaps design any other spillways, dams or bridges? Governor Jerry Brown should know because his father Edmund G. Brown was governor at the time of the Oroville dam’s construction. Under his son, the unsafe dam stands as monument to government incompetence, secrecy, and utter disregard for the safety of the people.