Three Mile Dam

An excavator breaks a log jam in April 2013 at the Three Mile Dam on the Umatilla River north of Hermiston. The state legislature has voted to beef up the department’s authority over dam safety.

SALEM — Dam owners would be subject to civil penalties for failing to maintain the structures under an overhaul of Oregon’s dam safety laws that’s passed the Legislature.

House Bill 2085, which passed the Senate unanimously June 3 after clearing the House in April, would also clarify the Oregon Water Resources Department’s authority over approving dam construction, removal and modification, among other provisions.

“This aging infrastructure needs to be carefully watched,” said Sen. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, noting that the bill also streamlines court procedures for compelling upgrades to unsafe dams.

“This is important authority that is necessary to protect the people of Oregon,” he said.

The bill applies to about 950 dams regulated by OWRD, including 75 “high hazard” structures that would likely cause deaths if they failed. About one-fourth of such dams are considered to be in poor or unsatisfactory condition.

“Every year, we typically have at least one dam that has a safety incident,” said Racquel Rancier, the agency’s senior policy coordinator, during a May hearing.

Since the 1800s, 55 dams have failed in Oregon, including one that killed seven people in 1896. Oregon’s dam safety statutes haven’t been updated since 1929.

Under the bill, OWRD could order a maintenance action after inspecting a dam that poses a high or significant hazard, which the owner can challenge in an administrative hearing.

Dam owners can work with the agency to develop a plan for correcting problems under the bill, while under current law, such orders are automatically subject to administrative hearings.

If the owner doesn’t perform the ordered maintenance, the agency can impose a civil penalty in an amount that’s yet to be determined by the Oregon Water Resources Commission.

Such penalties would be waived if the owner carries out the maintenance work and the final order can also be contested in court.

“Today, we’re in the position of asking, ‘Please,’” Rancier said, explaining that OWRD can’t impose penalties under current law.

New fees ranging from $1,750 to $8,500, depending on hazard rating, would be also charged to dam owners under HB 2085 to offset OWRD’s cost of reviewing plans for new structures or raising existing ones.

The bill would apply only to state-regulated dams and not those under the jurisdiction of the federal government.

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