State says lake dam in Peters endangers residents

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The state has declared the dam at Peters Lake Park to be "seriously inadequate," "severely deficient" and in danger of killing residents downstream if it spills over.

The Department of Environmental Protection didn't mince words in a Sept. 14 letter to the township, which shocked Peters council members Monday night when they got their first look at an assessment completed by the agency on the 40-acre impoundment.

Township engineer Mark A. Zemaitis, though, told council that "nothing has physically changed with respect to the spillway in 80 years" and, despite the lake's new "unsafe" label, it was unlikely to be in danger of immediately failing.

In April, the township was notified by the DEP that it would be reassessing high-hazard dams across the state, such as Peters Lake, because of a change in the way spillway adequacy is determined because of new dam safety regulations passed in early 2011.

Dams, including those in nearby Canonsburg and Dutch Fork lakes, can receive the high-hazard designation depending on the likelihood of loss of life or substantial property damage downstream because of a flood.

New regulations call for high-hazard spillways to withstand an epic flood of as much as 26 inches of rain in one day.

According to records maintained by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the most rainfall to fall in a single day in the Pittsburgh region was in September 2004, when the remnants from Hurricane Ivan swept through the region, dumping more than 6 inches of rain and causing record flooding and overtopped spillways across the western half of the state.

Dutch Fork Lake, for example, was immediately emptied when the hurricane damaged its concrete spillway. It recently underwent a $5.1 million dam reconstruction project and will likely be reopened in the spring.

Mr. Zemaitis said he didn't think the dam at Peters Lake would need to be replaced. Such projects typically cost $4 million to $5 million. Instead, Mr. Zemaitis said, he would look at options for raising the spillway and increasing the capacity of the impoundment to accommodate such an epic event.

If the township chooses not to act, the DEP could order it to drain the lake, Mr. Zemaitis said.

"Next, we're going to have to worry about a meteorite hitting the pond," complained Councilman James Berquist, who said an overtopped Peters Lake would be the least of the township's concerns if such an event ever occurred.

"This sounds like a knee-jerk reaction," agreed Councilwoman Monica Merrell, who also questioned the new regulations.

The dam's spillway has never been overtopped since the lake was constructed in 1931 by Citizens Water Co., even during the Hurricane Ivan flooding, Mr. Zemaitis said.

The township took over the lake and the surrounding property in 1996 and opened it for fishing and as a public park.

Assistant township manager Paul Lauer said the lake's new designation as an "unsafe, high-hazard dam" also could increase the township's liability insurance costs.

One way the township may be able to raise funds to expand the spillway is through Washington County's Local Share Account Program.

The program uses revenue generated by slot machines at The Meadows Racetrack & Casino to provide $10 million to $12 million annually for local economic development and community projects.

The county and host municipality North Strabane each have received a portion of the slot revenue since the casino opened in 2007, and Canonsburg Lake recently received funding for a major rehabilitation project.

At Monday's meeting, council members voted unanimously to support two local projects seeking Local Share Account funding this year, including an application from Peters Creek Sanitary Authority for a $315,000 grant toward a $630,000 project to expand sewer capacity in the Bower Hill/Venetia road corridor.

The second application is seeking $550,000, or half of the estimated $1.1 million cost, to replace the pedestrian bridge that carries the Montour Trail over Sugar Camp Road.

neigh_south - neigh_washington

Janice Crompton: jcrompton@post-gazette.com or 412-851-1867.


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