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Oroville – With water soon set to flow down the damaged spillway at Oroville Dam, some residents are cautiously confident in repairs and haven’t checked the newly minted evacuation plans yet.
The Department of Water Resources announced Monday that spillway flows would resume “on or around March 17,” for the first time since being shut off Feb. 27.
New evacuation plans are in place in case something goes wrong and residents in Oroville, Thermalito, Gridley, Biggs and other areas along the Feather River need to evacuate again. Residents can find the zone they belong to with an interactive map at www.buttecounty.net/oem.
Officials took to the drawing board following the one-hour evacuation order for more than 180,000 residents Feb. 12, caught off guard by erosion which threatened failure of the emergency spillway weir. Lack of preparedness resulted in disarray as some citizens were stranded and highways were congested.
The Sheriff’s Office is hosting meetings this week to inform the public of the new evacuation plans, with the first one taking place Thursday in Gridley. In Oroville, several residents have not seen the new maps yet available online.
Edward Pochay, 49, said evacuation plans are not a concern for him. Pochay is the resource director for the Oroville Rescue Mission and when the orders were issued last month, he was one of the people who stuck around in the flood zone.
“People want to point fingers,” Pochay said. “The truth of the matter is I’m not one to panic.”
He said he has confidence in the work going on at the dam because of all the money that’s gone into it. Pochay also knows some of the contractors and can vouch for their competence.
“I have a lot of faith in everything that’s in place,” he said. “Do you think all that time and energy is going into anything that’s going to fail?”
Some are a little more uncertain.
Tashina Green, 28, runs a sober living facility in Oroville where she has lived for four years, she said. When the orders were issued, some of the residents she took with her were extremely emotional and anxious, though she, a self-described adrenaline junkie, was excited as they headed for refuge in Sacramento, she said.
Green said she is pretty confident the spillway will be safe to run in the next few days. She hasn’t seen the new evacuation plans yet, though their existence makes her feel better.
“I feel mostly like it’s going to be OK,” she said.
Though she’s keeping a suitcase packed, just in case.
“I’m pretty confident I can get out quick,” Green said.
Devon Carsen, 27, lives in Forbestown outside the evacuation zones, but frequents Oroville. He does construction work and said it’s been frustrating and perplexing to follow the damage and repairs at the dam.
On one hand, there’s the over-arching bureaucratic element, and then, there’s the emergency aspect — with hundreds of thousands of people at risk, Carsen said. Federal and state funds have to be spread out for various infrastructure projects, but in that balance, something like this can happen.
“What’s more important infrastructure than the tallest dam in the U.S.?” he asked.
Carsen was in Sacramento when the orders were issued and stuck it out there for a few days. He said he hasn’t seen the new evacuation orders yet.
Use of the spillway is necessary again because of rising levels at Lake Oroville, with runoff and snowmelt, are surpassing the capacity of the Hyatt Powerhouse, which was releasing outflows of 12,900 cubic-feet per second Wednesday morning, the Department of Water Resources reported.
The spillway has been shut down since Feb. 27, after the lake had been drawn down more than 50 feet from the emergency spillway lip and since, the department and contractors have worked to remove debris – originally estimated to be 1.7 cubic yards – from the bottom of the spillway. The department reported Wednesday morning that approximately 1.2 million cubic yards of material had been removed from the bottom of the spillway.
The debris pile up was restricting the department from using its additional resource for releasing flows: the Hyatt Powerhouse.
The department got the plant up and running March 3 and slowly ramped up the outflow nearing the plant’s full capacity with five operating units of about 13,000 cubic-feet per second, or cfs. This has been sufficient to manage inflows but soon the rising lake levels because of runoff and snowmelt will require use of the spillway again.
There’s a sixth unit in the power plant that would allow releases in excess of 16,000 cfs, but it’s been out of service for years.
The magnitude of the emergency was realized Feb. 7 as a gaping hole emerged in the main spillway, growing into massive erosion across and down the spillway and the sides of the structure. But with heavy rainfall and snowmelt on the way, the department had to continue to let flows down the damaged spillway.
Oroville – Naturally-occurring asbestos has been found in the rock formations and in the air near the damaged Oroville Dam main spillway, according to a press release.
Although California Department of Water Resources said risk to workers and the surrounding community is minimal, dust-control operations are being increased. Air quality will continue to be monitored at the work site and nearby neighborhoods.
Bob McLaughlin, Butte County Air Quality Management District assistant air pollution control officer, said because some air quality tests came back positive, the area is being treated like a contaminated site.
“Absolutely any time there’s potential for public exposure to asbestos it’s a concern,” he said. “It’s either there, or it isn’t. If it’s there, you do everything you can to minimize dust emissions. You have to assume it’s everywhere (at the site). … You need to be very diligent and proactive in protecting public health.”
California Department of Water Resources said it was discovered in “limited areas” during the debris removal operation, and will be addressed “safely and successfully” with standard operating procedures.
The common mineral is found all over California, in 42 of its 58 counties, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Serpentine, which contains asbestos, is actually the state rock.
Asbestos is a human carcinogen, however, and can cause lung cancers, including mesothelioma, if airborne asbestos fibers are inhaled. It’s for this reason that naturally occurring asbestos can be a cause of concern if it is crushed or similarly disturbed.
“Out of an abundance of caution,” DWR has submitted a dust-control and air monitoring plan to the Air Quality Management District.
Control measures already in place include wetting the soil, using wet drilling methods and utilizing rumble strips on roads to reduce dirt collection on heavy equipment. Plans include washing trucks and tires, using personal air monitors and increasing how many air samples are collected.
DWR said it will continue to work with air quality officials, geologists and safety officers to monitor risks as work continues.
McLaughlin said the Air Quality Management District is working with DWR on additional monitoring to determine if there are “ambient levels of asbestos that would be a concern.” DWR is doing everything they can to minimize dust emissions, he said. The Air Quality Management District’s role is to protect the public, and they will make sure DWR and contractors are proceeding cautiously and operating under state-required airborne toxic control measures.
If people have concerns or see an excess of dust in the area, they can contact the Butte County Air Quality Management District at 1-855-332-9400.
There is a county air monitor located by the staging area, providing a live update of emissions in the area at bcaqmd.org. Though that only includes information about dust levels, not asbestos.
Meanwhile, the damaged main spillway is expected to brought into use sometime Friday. DWR has scheduled a 9 a.m. press conference on the matter.
The spillway has been shut down since Feb. 27, after Lake Oroville had been drawn down more than 50 feet from the emergency spillway lip. Crews working on the debris pile that built up at the base of the spillway have removed 1.24 million cubic-yards of material as of Thursday morning, according to DWR. The pile was originally estimated at 1.7 million cubic-yards.
Releases from Lake Oroville through the Hyatt Powerhouse remain at 12,900 cubic-feet per second, while inflows are fluctuating in the neighborhood of 19,000 cfs.
As a result, the lake level continues to rise, and was at 863.49 feet above sea level at 5 p.m. Thursday. That’s an increase of about 8 1/2 inches in 24 hours.
The flow in the part of the river past Oroville was increased from 10,700 cfs to 13,700 cfs Thursday afternoon, according to DWR, and releases from the Thermailto Afterbay outlet were shut off.