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Wednesday, 16 February 2011 20:23

Better safe than sorry unscores new dam safety protocols

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New protocols for the unlikely event that one of Duke Energy’s dams shows a sign of weakness could speed evacuation of residents downstream.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission wants power companies such as Duke Energy to cut the amount of time between workers suspecting a problem with a dam and the evacuation of anyone who might be at risk, a job carried out by local emergency responders.

An analysis completed this past year indicates “we’re in pretty good shape” on detecting dam-integrity issues, said Brad Keaton, chief dam safety engineer for Charlotte-based Duke Energy, during an annual meeting of regional emergency response workers and Duke employees. Sixty-five attended last week’s meeting, held at Western Carolina University.

Verification of a problem is where Duke can shave some additional time off, Keaton said.

An on-call technician will be dispatched, as always, to evaluate the situation firsthand. Duke is adding technology — in this case, on-site cameras — so that a dam failure can be declared more quickly.

Anyone working on the dams for the company is empowered to make the call without going through the chain of command, no matter how low on the corporate ladder their job might be, the engineer said. This is not the case with most agencies, including Fontana Dam in Swain and Graham counties, a federal Tennessee Valley Authority project.

“In the very unlikely event of a dam failure our responsibility in hydro (as in hydroelectric dams) is for the safety of downstream residents,” said Carol S. Goolsby, vice president of Duke’s hydro and renewables generation. “We were questioned (by federal authorities) about whether this responsibility is really and truly at the lowest level of workers in the company … they are well-trained, they’re very experienced, they live here, and they know the structures.”

These workers, Goolsby added, recognize any changes occurring to a dam because “they know what they are used to seeing.”

Keaton said Duke Energy recognizes there is a certain risk involved in empowering its employees — an unnecessary evacuation is unlikely to be easily overlooked in a community — but “this is a risk we are willing to take.”

Additionally, Keaton told those at the meeting that a siren will be added to at least one Western North Carolina dam: the dam on Nantahala Lake at the confluence of Queens Creek and the Nantahala River in northwestern Macon County. A cluster of houses lies directly below the remote location, and a siren would warn the residents there more quickly if there were any danger.

Duke Energy has 12 dams in the Nantahala Area, the 1,729-square-mile part of Western North Carolina once served by Nantahala Power and Light. Nantahala Power and Light never experienced a dam failure; Duke Energy also has not had a dam failure since its beginnings in 1904 as a hydroelectric generating company, according to Fred Alexander, district manager for Duke.

The company and area emergency managers meet every year, he said, to ensure coordination and to know one another personally.

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