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Safety stressed in renovation of 86-year-old dam

MINERAL RIDGE, Ohio - Though much remains unknown as to the kind of reconstruction program that will be done to modernize the Mahoning Valley Sanitary District’s Meander Reservoir dam, MVSD President Matt Blair says the safety of downstream residents will continue to be an important consideration. Blair says the 86-year-old dam needs to have the modern advancements that allow for ground movement and will allow the dam to function for many more years.  “I want to bring the dam up to today’s specifications. I don’t want to be coming back in 10 years doing this again,” Blair said.

 

The engineering firm Gannett Fleming has a $396,000 contract to study the dam. The study is expected to be complete in the fall and will help determine the scope of the renovation and how much it will cost. Cost estimates for upgrades to the dam have risen. The original estimate was $3.6 million but is now about $28 million. Blair, a Niles representative on the MVSD board, has raised red flags about the safety of the dam in recent years. He wrote letters last summer to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Agency asking for help in determining whether “ground shifting” is occurring near the Meander facilities that would explain cracking in the road above the dam, built in 1932, and in MVSD buildings. More recently, he has cited evaluations of the dam by Gannett Fleming and ODNR saying the dam is structurally sound and poses no danger to the public. The MVSD has an emergency action plan, which its employees last updated in January. Its purpose is to outline procedures that would be implemented in the event of an emergency involving the MVSD, such as a weather event, chemical spill or a problem with the dam. It lists agencies that might be involved in an emergency response and lists phone numbers and contact names.

 

An ODNR inspection of the dam last September also contains a potential downstream-hazard classification, which is a chart listing the areas that would be vulnerable to flooding if the dam broke. It says Niles and Girard would have a “probable loss of human life,” flooding of structures or high-value property and damage to roads. It says downtown Niles is 1.9 miles from the dam;

Girard is 5 miles away. The dam is rated Class 1, which means it poses the greatest hazard to downstream residents of the four dam classifications in Ohio. The classification is based on the height of the dam (60 feet), the “total volume of water the dam can impound,” and the “potential downstream hazard,” according to ODNR. Renovations to the dam could take three years to complete and could create additional hazards, so Gannett Fleming will write a separate construction- related emergency action plan, Blair said. An emergency action plan will be written by Gannett Fleming to address any hazards that would arise in the event that there was a hazard during the renovation of the dam,” Blair said recently during an interview. The plan might also address other hazards that could arise in future years, such as earthquakes, Blair said. A June 2012 engineering study by MS Consultants of Youngstown evaluated the possibility that area injection wells caused damage to the dam and MVSD buildings. No evidence was found of that, however. MS studied cracking in the floor and elsewhere in the MVSD filter addition building, which was built in 2005. The 2012 report mentions that a 4.0 magnitude earthquake occurred at the Northstar 1 injection well on Ohio Works Drive in Youngstown Dec. 31, 2011, and the filter- building cracks were first observed three days later. Northstar 1 is about 7 miles from the dam.

Professional Service Industries Inc. conducted four soil borings in April 2012 around the perimeter of the filtration building. The results indicated that it is “highly probable that settlement of the existing fill ... is the primary cause of the cracks and that the earthquake prompted the owner to recently look for and record existence of cracks.” The report also said, however, that “it is also possible that the 4.0-magnitude earthquake may have aggravated the severity and/or extent of the cracking, and the cracks became more noticeable.”

 

The September 2016 ODNR inspection of the dam didn’t mention any substantial concerns about the dam’s safety, but it addressed the dam’s emergency action plan. “Despite efforts to provide sufficient structural integrity and to perform inspection and maintenance, dams can develop problems that can lead to failure,” the report said. “Early detection and appropriate response are crucial for maintaining the safety of the dam and downstream people and property.”

The 2016 report said the “Mineral Ridge [Meander] Dam has an approved emergency action plan,” but its “contact information is out of date.” The plan is also missing a “preparedness section,” it says. When the plan is revised, a copy should be provided to ODNR and the Trumbull County Emergency Management Agency, it says. Dave Tabak of MS Consultants, who has been operator of record and chief engineer for MVSD since late February, said the MVSD board has authorized Gannett Fleming to create an emergency action plan.

 

As part of that process, MVSD will conduct exercises to present information to the communities near the dam to allow them to be prepared in the event of a dam failure. Tabak said he doesn’t know when those types of exercises will take place, but it will be after a draft of the emergency action plan is written. When asked recently whether Trumbull Emergency Management Agency in Warren has a copy of the existing emergency action plan, officials said they could not find one. Niles Fire Chief David Danielson also said he doesn’t have a copy of the plan. Various things can cause ground shifting, and injection wells are just one of them, Blair said. Others are “natural shifting of the ground” such as from geological faults. “I want the [dam renovation] project to take into consideration seismic activity wherever it comes from,” he said. As of late January, Gannett Fleming was conducting soil borings, according to documents obtained by The Vindicator through a public records request. John Williams of Youngstown, a member of the environmentalist group Frackfree Mahoning Valley, said the increase in cost estimates to renovate the dam in recent years makes people like him wonder whether seismicity produced by the gas and oil industry explain the higher estimated cost of dam renovations. “It’s been damaged by something,” Williams said of the dam. “They can’t seem to put their finger on it.”

Thank you, Ron