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Experts Say Deteriorating Locks And Dams Inviting Disaster

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) -- They're old, rusty and deteriorating -- some like Montgomery Dam in Monaca should have been replaced decades ago.

"It's almost 100 years old and the gates are in a very degraded condition," said Jeff Hawk with the Army Corps of Engineers.

To the point of inviting catastrophe, as when runaway barges tore through two of the gates 10 years ago. Quick work by the Army Corps of Engineers shored them up, averting disaster but not the one you might imagine.

"There isn't any real risk of flooding if they should breach," said Hawk. "The risk is that we're going to lose the pool."

Not a flood, but a loss of pool. It's not how we think of them, but the Allegheny, the Monongahela and the Ohio are not free flowing rivers, but rather a series of dammed up pools or reservoirs.

The danger with old dams like the Montgomery, is that a breach would drain the pool behind it in a matter of days or weeks, resulting serious consequences for all of us who live nearby.

"When you're messing with water, you're messing with people's ability to stay alive," said Pittsburgh Emergency Manager Ray Demichei.

Navigation would stop and fish and wildlife would die -- but the even bigger problem would be the water supply for local municipalities if the river levels dropped below intake pipe for treatment plants.

That's why the Federal Department of Homeland Security recently reached out to emergency planner in the region to develop the framework for a response. And in planning exercises, stakeholders Demichei began considering just how they would provide for the needs of hundreds of thousands of people.

"These are things we should think about, and the things we should be prepared for," Demichei said.

And if it all seems unlikely, consider this: it's already happened here. In 1985 a flood caused a dozen runaway barges to hit the Maxwell Dam and the Mon behind it drained to only 3 feet of water. A drained pool has broad impacts.

"To industry that takes their water," said Hawk. "Firefighting water supply, drinking water supply, sanitary sewer treatment."

It's the reason Sen. Bob Casey was in town today, announcing new funding to remove and replace dams while seeking more federal money to fix others.

"I put it in that category of we can invest now or pay later," said Casey.

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