SULLIVAN / WASHINGTON CO.,TN (WJHL) In the days immediately after the October 2014 discovery of a structural problem at Boone Dam, internal TVA emails show staff had grave concerns about the dam and the potential impact on the safety of people downstream.
And emails reveal the agency was preparing for a possible long-term repair several months before TVA announced its five-year repair effort.
The new revelations and others are found in newly obtained internal TVA communications obtained by News Channel 11 through a public records request.
The emails – redacted by TVA – show the agency’s response in the hours, days and weeks after a sinkhole formed at the base of the dam in October, 2014.
At 8:29 am on October 20th, a TVA employee at Boone Dam alerted his managers about a sinkhole in a parking lot about 75 feet downstream of Boone Dam. “That’s a rather large hole to have developed so quickly,” a TVA colleague writes back later that day.
More emails reveal a flurry of activity throughout the day. Staff inspected the sinkhole, monitored the dam closely for any problems, and held a conference call to talk about the sinkhole.
By 5:18 p.m., a TVA employee writes, “We don’t know if this is a dam safety issue, but are investigating.”
- READ THE EMAILS: TVA Boone Dam emails Oct & Nov 2014.pdf
But the emails reveal concerns heightened in the following days when staff spotted brown clouds of sediment billowing out of an embankment downstream, a sign that water was moving near the base of the dam and carrying earth with it – not a good thing near a dam made of dirt.
Constructed in 1950, part of Boone Dam is earth-filled while the other part is concrete.
Ten days later, TVA publicly announced the formation of the sinkhole and the discovery of sediment seepage, and TVA discussed their plans to lower down Boone Lake at an accelerated rate while engineers inspected the dam.
Emails in late October and early November 2014 show staff in full investigative mode with TVA employees at the highest levels involved in the on-going communications. Correspondences reveal TVA watching Boone Dam around the clock and closely monitoring the lake’s rapid descent, a move designed to take pressure off the earth filled portion of the dam.
“We identified the issue before it became a real issue,” TVA Vice President John Kammeyer told News Channel 11 in a recent interview at the dam.
While the agency suspected serious problems almost right away, the TVA didn’t publicly explain the extent of the problems at Boone Dam and the full extent of the public impact on Boone Lake until July 30, 2015 at a meeting in Johnson City.
Prior that that meeting, the agency released few details beyond its public comments made in February when TVA announced it would keep lake levels low for the rest of 2015 while conducting tests at the site to determine the extent of problems underground.
But internal emails show TVA staffers using the term “piping” right after the sinkhole appeared – the movement of water and sediment through a dam structure that can, in some cases and without intervention, lead to a dam’s collapse.
“It’s very likely we have a piping situation,” a TVA dam safety manager emailed on November 21, 2014.
“Piping is a failure mode of a dam,” Kammeyer recently told News Channel 11. “It’s that flow of water this is picking up soil particles and clay particles and it’s moving. And it comes out the back end. Pretty soon you have enough flow that it causes a rapid failure. And there have been dams that have failed from piping And huge dams can fail in 20 or 30 minutes once it gets to a certain point.”
Emails around that same time include discussions of what would eventually be TVA’s long-term solution to piping at Boone Dam – the injection of grout into the dam to fill underground holes and the construction of a “cut-off” wall to stop the flow of water and protect the structure from collapse.
As soon as November 20, 2014. emails reveal TVA’s executive project review board approved approved $26.5 million dollars to begin the Boone Dam repair project. “The $26.5 million is a combination of design for the repair, investigative grouting to support design, quality assurance and quality control of the investigative grouting, management costs, and early contractor involvement in the design,” a TVA spokesman told News Channel 11 last week.
“I would not say this is an emergency but there is urgency so it doesn’t develop into an emergency situation,” one TVA dam safety manager wrote in November 2014.
One year later, TVA stands by its decision to quickly lower Boone Dam after the discoveries of October 2014, and the agency insists it told the public what it could when it could.
“What they did to maintain dam safety was the right thing – lower the reservoir, ” Kammeyer said. “We’ve had a lot of experts look at it and give us that advice. Keep the reservoir down until you’ve built the wall. We’ve had too many people telling us that for us to take a chance with raising it.”
But some who live along the lake still wonder why TVA didn’t alert boat owners more quickly that they faced the chance of having their boats stranded in lifts and on dry ground above the lowered lake. As of last July, TVA said approximately 175 boats were unable to access water on Boone Lake because of the low lake level. News Channel 11 asked for an updated count, but a spokesman said the agency is no longer tracking the number.
Boone Lake resident Steve Carter is one of people who live on the lake who’s still frustrated. “If they would have just told us and come and said, ‘People on the lake, we’re having problems with the dam and we don’t know how long we’re going to have to work. So we’re going to have a month, two months… so get them out. Please get them out,” Carter said.
He only recently was able to free his boat from a lakeside lift. Carter estimated the rescue effort took days at an estimated cost of at least $5,000.
Carter believes TVA could have given boat owners a chance to get watercraft off the lake. “To bring it up for a couple of weeks would not have caused any more danger than what it has right now.”
TVA continues to insist that is not true.
“Raising the water level could be potentially disastrous, and we’re not going to do it,” Kammeyer said. “Dam safety first.”
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