Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration is using federal security regulations written to thwart terrorism to deny public access to records that experts say could guide repairs to the Oroville Dam and provide insight into what led to the near catastrophic failure of its emergency spillway.
The administration also is blocking public review of records that would show how Brown’s office handled the February crisis at Oroville Dam that led to the two-day evacuation of nearly 200,000 Northern Californians.
The Oroville Dam Spillway was used again today, Friday, April 14th and hasen’t been used for nearly three weeks. Current outflow is 35069 CFS. Level is at 865.84 FT.
Dam operators released flows on the spillway around 9 a.m. Friday morning.
This is the first time the damaged spillway has been used since March 27.
Flows are expected to continue for two weeks.
According to the DWR, the Hyatt Power Plant will be shut down for a few days to run powerlines.
Days after the evacuation orders were lifted in February, The Sacramento Bee filed requests to the state under the California Public Records Act.
In one request, the newspaper sought design specifications, federal inspection reports, technical documents, the results of rock sampling and other information.
Outside engineers told The Bee such records would likely provide an accounting of what caused a gaping chasm to form in the dam’s main concrete spillway on Feb. 7 and the near collapse of the dam’s emergency spillway a few days later.
The Bee also sought internal communications and emails from Brown’s office. Those records could show how Brown and his top staff members were coordinating the ongoing crisis with each other, with outside agencies and with members of the public.
The administration denied the request for technical information about the dam and provided a limited response to the request for internal communications.
Its secrecy has outraged state and federal lawmakers representing the people living below the dam, who frantically fled the area after officials warned of a “30-foot wall of water” cascading down the Feather River when the dam’s emergency spillway nearly gave way on Feb. 12.
“This is very, very disturbing to me,” said Assemblyman James Gallagher, R-Yuba City. “We just want transparency. We want to know what happened up there and why this happened in the first place.”
Oroville resident Beth Bello said the state owes it to residents to provide full disclosure of what happened. Bello’s cellphone video of concrete debris and water blasting off the crumbling spillway in February went viral during the crisis. She said Tuesday she is far more concerned about state officials’ inability to maintain their facilities than she was about terrorism.
“The terrorist issue is irrelevant – completely irrelevant – to what happened to the spillway and the damage to it,” she said. “The structural integrity of it is much more of a threat than ever a terrorist, especially at this point in time.”
In denying the request for information about the dam itself, Brown’s Department of Water Resources cited provisions in state and federal law that allow government officials to block certain records because of security concerns.
“There is going to be a level of security over certain types of information,” acting DWR Director Bill Croyle said last week.
The Bee requested an interview from Brown or a senior member of his staff on Monday. Brown spokesman Evan Westrup said he would check but he did not “anticipate an interview will be doable.” DWR didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The denials from Brown and his staff came after The Bee used public records to reveal that a team of consultants overseeing repairs at Oroville harbored serious doubts that state officials could complete repairs in a single season.
The records, filed by DWR with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in March, also noted disturbing design flaws that could have caused the main spillway’s failure.
Until that point, DWR officials had been saying they believed they could completely repair the spillway by Nov. 1, the start of the next rainy season. They also said they still didn’t know the likely reason for the spillway’s failure.
Croyle, the acting DWR director, later said the report “shouldn’t have been made public” and defended the decision to file subsequent reports with the federal agency under seal. Those include two more recent reports from the outside consultants, one of which was filed Tuesday, as well as a pair of reports last month on the spillway gates and “project safety compliance.”
Croyle said he has been consulting with Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea on keeping information under wraps.
“We’re here to help with that balance between transparency and also security,” Honea said last week. “There are security issues associated with the design of these structures. If they were to be made public or fell into the wrong hands, they could be used to create havoc or harm.”