Judge to hear arguments that sexism, racism played part in Oroville dam crisis in 2017

Posted at 7:24 AM, Feb 15, 2019

Two years after 200,000 people evacuated as the nation's tallest dam threatened to spill over, a judge will hear arguments Friday about whether accusations of corruption, sexism and racism at the California Department of Water Resources played a part in it all.

Officials in the Northern California city of Oroville lodged a complaint in January 2018, claiming that the dam crisis was caused by "decades of mismanagement and intentional lack of maintenance by the California Department of Water Resources," or DWR.

"For years, DWR supervisors were more interested in lining their own pockets than ensuring the safety of the facility and its workers," the complaint says.

In response, DWR asked the judge to strike about 20 of those claims, saying that the allegations are irrelevant to who is responsible for the dam's failure.

What actually happened

The tallest dam in the nation sent the town of Oroville into crisis when powerful storms across California caused Lake Oroville's levels to rise to the top in February 2017.

The water could not be drained fast enough, and the main spillway had developed a hole the size of a football field and 40 feet deep due to erosion.

For the first time in the nearly 50 years since it was built, water was diverted into the emergency spillway, which was covered with brush, trees and rock.

"Any spillway -- primary or emergency -- usually has some kind of protection, a concrete basin," said Blake Paul Tullis, a professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Utah State University. "For structures as big as this, it seems pretty uncommon to not have some protection at the base of the spillway."

As millions of gallons of water washed over the emergency spillway, it began to erode.

That is when authorities ordered evacuations, concerned that the spillway could fail and send water downstream and toward residential areas.

The allegations

The complaint calls the management at DWR "a den of improper conduct" and alleges that greed, corruption, sexism and racism created an environment where proper safety measures were not prioritized.

From stealing state equipment, to maintaining an "unofficial" set of accounting books, to the development of a "crony system" where a supervisor would give overtime work to employees he considered close friends, DWR supervisors earned the name among staff as "the water mafia," said the complaint.

The complaint alleges that a noose, directed at an African American employee, was hung in a meeting room used daily by DWR staff. It stayed for three months until the employee took it down himself.

In another instance, one of the few female employees had a CPR mannequin posed in a sexual position at one of her work sites.

Experts said these conditions "would more likely than not affect the ability of employees to productively perform their jobs, including jobs responsible for Oroville Dam safety," according to the complaint.

The impact

About 188,000 people were evacuated from towns surrounding the dam.

Some residents said they were given 30 minutes to flee, fearing that a 30-foot "wall of water" could come crashing down.

"Everyone was running around," Oroville resident Maggie Cabral told CNN affiliate KFSN. "All of the streets were immediately packed with cars, people in my neighborhood grabbing what they could and running out the door and leaving."

The mandatory evacuation lasted about two days.

The financial impacts of the chaos were much greater in number.

DWR estimated the cost of emergency response and repairs to the main and emergency spillways to be $1.1 billion.

The aftermath

While DWR says the main spillway was reconstructed by November 2018, the agency said finishing work is still in progress.

The emergency spillway is also currently under construction, with construction crews placing a concrete cap on a concrete buttress.

Spillway boat ramps and pedestrian access to the walkway across the top of the dam are expected to reopen in the summer of 2019 with improved safety measures.


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