TVA: Dam safety reports contain ‘sensitive, confidential’ info; Not public record

JOHNSON CITY, TN (WJHL) – Tennessee Valley Authority is in the process of finalizing safety assessments at 49 dam projects, a process that’s supposed to wrap up at the end of the year.

That’s according to the agency’s most recent annual report to the federal government.

But when News Channel 11 asked to see the findings of TVA’s dam safety inspections, TVA said the official reports contain sensitive and confidential information that’s not a part of the public record, and TVA said sharing the reports could expose the dams to a possible security risk.

News Channel 11 also learned the complete details of the official dam safety assessments conducted by TVA aren’t shared with the Federal Emergency Management, the agency in charge of overseeing national dam safety.

But while protecting the security of its dam safety information, TVA said the public needs to know that inspections show all dams in the Tri-Cities are in good working order.

“Our dams are very safe, very stable,” David Bowling, vice president of Land and River Management for TVA, said. “We have a very comprehensive program and set of procedures that we have developed over the last 60 years in order to ensure that our dams function as designed.”

Bowling said TVA is constantly conducting safety inspections at its dams. At regular intervals, TVA conducts a complete dam safety analysis.

“There will be a dam safety inspection that occurs every month and then on an annual basis there will be a different set of eyes or a different dam safety professional group of folks,” Bowling said. “On at least a 5-year basis, everything that we know about that dam we will put all of that out and we will have the experts look at it.”

Bowling said technology allows the dams to be watched around the clock.

“We have over 7,000 instruments that are collecting data for the most part in real time,” he said. “People are looking at that on a daily basis.”

Recently, after a request from News Channel 11 to see the agency’s dam safety reports, TVA said that information had to be closely guarded.

“The official dam safety reports, which contain all of the detailed technical information that would be considered ‘sensitive’ or ‘confidential,’ are internal to TVA or to a select number of industry-related technical experts with the necessary security clearances,” Jim Hopson, TVA spokesman, said.

Hopson asked TVA engineers to prepare a summary of their dam safety assessments in response to News Channel 11’s request to see dam safety reports.

READ: Summary of TVA dam safety assessments provided to News Channel 11 on May 17th

All the summaries concluded the same about each TVA dam in the Tri-Cities. “All inspections have indicated the dam is performing as intended.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency oversees the safety of the nation’s dams.

When News Channel 11 asked if FEMA has access to TVA’s internal dam safety studies, a spokesman said, “Currently, FEMA does not have access to internal safety assessment reports the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) has conducted on its individual dams. Federal guidelines for dam safety recommends that all federal high-hazard potential dams have emergency action plans, and it is our understanding that the TVA has created such plans for the dams within its jurisdiction.”

But while TVA said its dam safety program is self-regulated and its findings are confidential, the agency said it is heavily involved in sharing information and participating in national dam safety initiatives.

“TVA does report information annually to FEMA’s National Dam Safety program and also to the National Inventory of Dams,” Hopson said. “The reporting to FEMA contains information about inspections and the status of TVA dams, although we do not submit the inspection reports themselves.”

“For dam safety, TVA is self-regulated in voluntary compliance with the Federal Guidelines for Dam Safety, which TVA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Reclamation, and other federal dam agencies helped create.

TVA also participates on the National Dam Safety Review Board, and the Interagency Committee on Dam Safety.”

READ: FEMA’s 2016 National Dam Safety Report with information provided by TVA (.pdf) 

“It is more than just taking us at our word,” Bowling said about TVA’s dam safety initiatives. “For most folks within the dam safety industry, it becomes a calling to maintain the structures as safely as possible.”

“We have a forecast center in Knoxville that’s staffed 24 hours a day, 365 days a year that manages and operates these projects to make sure that they bring benefit to the community is that they are in,” he said. “And every one of those folks know that unless that dam and that structure is safe, not only does it become not a benefit, it becomes a hazard. And that’s the way we are going to manage them – to keep people downstream as safe as possible.”

Copyright 2017 WJHL.  All rights reserved.

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