Meeting legal dam inspections nearly “impossible,” says state official

Head of state agency responsible for safety of potentially hazardous dams admitted to a legislative committee dams are not being inspected when the law says they should be.
The Megunticook East dam
Megunticook East dam in Camden, a high-hazard dam, was originally constructed more than 100 years ago. It lies upstream of downtown Camden and a residential neighborhood. Photo by John Christie

AUGUSTA — The head of the state agency responsible for the safety of about 100 potentially hazardous dams admitted to a legislative committee Monday that the dams are not being inspected when the law says they should be.

But he also said he was confident in the assurance he got from the chief dam inspector that none of the dams pose a danger.

Robert McAleer, director of the Maine Emergency Management Agency, told the committee that completing safety inspections of the dams “at the rate specified in the law is virtually impossible.”

He was responding to a news story by the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting in August that revealed the state had records of on-time inspections of only 10 percent of the 93 dams in the state classified as high or significant hazard.

High hazard dams could take lives if they fail; significant hazard dams would destroy property. State law requires them to be inspected by a MEMA civil engineer every two or four years, respectively.

The story, he said, “might leave the reader somewhat concerned, but that is not the case,” he said, because the state dam inspector keeps in touch with dam owners and visits the dams on a regular basis.

But the inspector doesn’t do the legally required engineering inspections when he makes those visits. Actual inspections, McAleer said, “would arguably be better,” but with a staff of just one inspector until recently, when a second was added, has meant his agency cannot do the full, on-time inspections for all the dams.

McAleer told legislators he asked the inspector, Tony Fletcher, “point blank” about the safety of the dams “and he said he was quite confident he knew the conditions of the dams.”

McAleer appeared before the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety at its request.

Rep. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, said, “Considering we have not adequately funded” the program and cannot live up to the dam safety law, the agency should consider suggesting changes that would allow for less than full inspections.

Rep. Gary Plummer, R-Windham, the House chair of the committee, asked McAleer to report back on the average time it takes to do the legal inspections.

He also asked McAleer if it was possible to visit, but not inspect, all of the high and significant hazard dams in a one-year period.

McAleer said, “It might get tough to do both,” but added, “we could take a stab at it.”


John Christie

John Christie is the co-founder, former publisher and former senior reporter of the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting. He has covered local, state and national politics as a reporter, editor and publisher at newspapers in Maine, Massachusetts and Florida and holds a BA in political science from the University of New Hampshire.

Naomi Schalit

Naomi Schalit is a co-founder of the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, which operates The Maine Monitor.
Previous Post
The Megunticook East dam

The story behind the dam story

Next Post
An illustration of a brown dog standing at attention in front of a wooden cutout of the state of Maine

Center’s interns out in the world

The Maine Monitor has five newsletters to keep you informed about Maine.