How Marion lost a lake: Inside the tense arguments that led to draining the town’s water supply
As the Crittenden County community of Marion in western Kentucky continues to grapple with a dire water shortage, released state documents show strained communications between local and state officials in the runup to the breach of a Lake George levee this spring, which was done despite warnings of potential disaster.
Memos — written by Dam Safety Section staff with the Kentucky Division of Water in late April and early May — show high tensions and arguments between state dam inspectors and local officials over how to address a flowing water leak that appeared at the bottom of the earthen dam and, more urgently, a sinkhole in the middle of the dam that grew rapidly in size. City of Marion and Crittenden County officials then decided to breach the levee with an excavator despite warnings from on-site state dam inspectors that such a move “could get out of control quickly."
In interviews, local officials say they stand by their decision to breach the dam in a situation that they thought could have led to the failure of the dam if officials waited longer without taking action. The documents — received through an open records request from the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet — also show the fluidity of the emergency in late April and continued clashes between state dam inspectors and local officials in early May.
In breaching the city-owned dam, local officials drained more than 180 million gallons of water from Lake George. The reservoir served as Marion’s primary water source, holding about a year’s worth of water supply. If the dam had a catastrophic failure, multiple bridges, the city’s water plant and backup reservoir, private developments and the Crittenden Community Hospital could have been at risk.
The small city of less than 3,000 people has been facing a critical water shortage in the months since in large part because of this decision to breach the dam, a decision that’s left some Marion residents wondering if it was the best option available at the time.
A water leak, then a growing sinkhole
A memo dated April 28 describes engineers Glen Alexander and Marilyn Thomas with the state Dam Safety Section first arriving at the Lake George dam in late April to investigate a report that the dam was failing because “water was boiling from a pipe through the dam.”
The Dam Safety Section of the Kentucky Division of Water, housed in the Energy and Environment Cabinet, is in charge of inspecting dams on a regular basis. Dams considered to have a higher hazard classification — meaning more people and infrastructure is in harm's way — are inspected more often. The Lake George dam had a Significant Hazard classification, meaning that state dam officials try to inspect the dam every three years.
At their initial review of the dam on April 27, Thomas and Alexander found “flowing water from the toe of the dam.”
“A 5 foot soil probe was easily pushed into the toe to its full length,” the April 28 memo stated. “Numerous crayfish holes were observed on the downstream slope from toe to crest. Seepage and wet areas along the toe from the left abutment to the old valve box have been noted during past inspections.”
State dam inspectors directed operators at Marion’s nearby water plant to monitor the situation for any changes at the dam and have members of the cabinet’s Environmental Response Team (ERT) to also check and document the dam’s condition. According to the cabinet, the ERT team takes emergency action if a structure is in danger of failing and has siphon pipes and pumps to help drain water from a reservoir in an emergency.
Two days later, according to an incident report written by state dam inspectors, conditions at the Lake George dam deteriorated quickly. The evening of April 29, a member of ERT staff reported a sinkhole had opened up in the middle of the dam. A little over an hour after the sinkhole was first reported, it had grown to about six feet in diameter.
Local fire trucks were brought in that night to begin pumping water out of the lake, and ERT with the cabinet had multiple water pumps running the morning of April 30. The sinkhole would only continue to grow, and tensions and arguments would soon break out as for how to address it.
“Wet” and “unstable” situation
The incident report goes on to state, as written by Marilyn Thomas with the Dam Safety Section, that the sinkhole — when state dam inspectors arrived at the dam the morning of April 30 — was 150 square feet in size and filled with water. The pumps had only lowered the lake level by three feet overnight and that it was “apparent” by noon that pumps would not lower the lake level quickly enough. More rain was predicted to fall that day, potentially complicating the situation.
Then, according to the incident report, Crittenden County Emergency Management Director Jason Hurley raised the possibility of breaching the dam. Thomas responded to him that “there were significant risks involved with breaching a dam with a full reservoir.”
“I emphasized that breaching a dam under those conditions would require a careful approach and would have to be controlled to prevent a runaway situation. I told Mr. Hurl[e]y that Marion Dam was built with poor material, was wet and was unstable,” the report stated. “Any attempt to breach Marion with a full reservoir could get out of control quickly. I also advised that if this was tried the breach would need to be made at one of the abutments and not in the center of the dam.”
Hurley and local officials went ahead with the breach despite those concerns, at one point almost making the breach in the middle of the dam, according to the incident report. The breach was eventually made on the far end of the dam:
“A track hoe was brought in by the city to breach the dam. There was contentious discussion among the parties representing the local and state agencies about where the breach was to be made or if it was to be made,” the incident report said. “Dam Safety personnel plainly outlined the risk involved in breaching a dam with a full reservoir. Locals pushed back arguing that it was better to have the dam fail in broad daylight from the breaching effort. At one point the contractor and some of the locals walked the trackhoe across the crest of the dam toward the center with the intent of breaching there. That effort was stopped.”
In a statement to WKMS News, an Energy and Environment Cabinet spokesperson said state dam inspectors did recommend against the breaching of the dam “due to the unknown stability of the embankment and the risk for an uncontrolled release of the reservoir if the flow began to erode the dam.”
The spokesperson said state dam inspectors were only at the site in an advisory role and that decisions on how to approach the situation were left to local officials.
An unapproved excavation
According to other memos and records, more clashes between state dam inspectors and local officials took place in the days after the initial dam breach.
Another memo details how Marilyn Thomas met up with Shannon McLeary, a supervisor for the Division of Water Regional Office in Paducah, at the dam on May 3 for a follow-up inspection.
What state officials found, according to the memo, was a surprise: the sinkhole had been excavated “from the toe to the crest” of the dam without their knowledge.
“An unsupported vertical high wall approximately 8-10 feet in height was noted. The material stockpiled from the excavation was noted to be wet and in places very wet,” Thomas reported in her memo.
When state dam officials met with city and county officials to figure out who had approved the sinkhole excavation, they were “given a run-around.”
“Mr. Hurl[e]y, county EM director finally claimed it in a round-about way. His intention was to uncover the water line, replace the section that leaked and to breach the dam. I told the group that they didn’t have permission to do this without a permit from DOW,” the memo continued. “Both Ms. McLeary and I emphasized the fact that the excavation was unsafe for the equipment operator and should be stopped. I told both city and county officials that the walls of the current breach must be sloped and stabilized to prevent cave-in. We were met with argument and lack of cooperation.”
A record of communication from Thomas, dated May 5, states she received a phone call that day from Kenny McDaniel, an engineer with the Paducah firm Bacon Farmer Workman Engineering & Testing, retained by the city of Marion to inspect the dam and make recommendations on its stabilization and remediation.
“Their observations were basically the same as those of Dam Safety over the past week. Mr. McDaniel told the city and county officials that Dam Safety personnel were correct in their assessment of the dam,” Thomas wrote. “He also told them that the Division of Water had the authority to order them to stop work and could issue a Notice of Violation. They were told that if they moved one more shovel of dirt The Cabinet would fine them.”
McDaniel did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Following that incident, Kentucky Division of Water Director Carey Johnson sent Marion Mayor Jared Byford a letter directing the city to stop all unpermitted work on the dam and to stabilize the emergency breach and the excavation of the sinkhole.
Later in May, the Division of Water sent the city a notice of violation in part for excavating the sinkhole without a permit, ordering the city to create an corrective action plan to fully drain the lake. The cabinet spokesperson in a statement said the cabinet has not levied any fines to the city of Marion following the notice of violation.
Local officials respond
In interviews last week, local officials stood by their decision to breach the levee in late April, stating state dam inspectors, particularly Glen Alexander, were “indecisive” in their advice on how to address the growing sinkhole and leak in the dam.
“It seemed like they were more interested in the concerns about legal responsibility, rather than being a helpful participant,” said Marion City Administrator Adam Ledford. “There was a lot of frustration among the parties coming out of that weekend.”
Ledford said Alexander had told him on April 30 that the dam was an “immediate threat” of failing but wouldn’t say how exactly to drain Lake George.
Ledford said local officials decided to breach the dam in late April because they didn’t want the dam to fail as the sinkhole continued to grow. Crittenden County Judge-Executive Perry Newcom said, based on feedback from the contractor with the excavator, the decision was made to breach the dam.
“I think those on site at the time felt it was uncomfortable to just sit and watch the center of the levee basically erode and deteriorate to the point where you have a gaping hole in the middle of the levee,” Newcom said. “At least we're gonna try to control the release of water instead of it controlling us.”
As for the excavation of the sinkhole in early May, Ledford said he only arrived at the dam minutes before Division of Water staff did to find an excavated hole where the sinkhole previously was. Newcom said he didn’t know about the excavation of the sinkhole until the following day.
Crittenden County Emergency Management Director Jason Hurley walked away from a WKMS News reporter when approached with questions about the excavation of the sinkhole.
In an interview, Kentucky Division of Water Director Carey Johnson said the excavation of the sinkhole was stopped because it was potentially introducing additional weak points in the dam’s structure, along with the emergency breach that was made.
As for the emergency breach of the dam in late April, Johnson said dam safety engineers take a “very conservative view” to their jobs.
“There's so many unknowns related to dams and how they fail,” Johnson said. “We're following, you know, the [local officials] and advising what the best path forward is.”
Both Newcom and Ledford expressed that they appreciate the help the Division of Water has provided so far amid the water shortage and that past tensions have been put behind them.
“That's history that came and went, and it's our job now to deal with what we've got,” Newcom said. “With respect to the governor and what he's done to activate all these folks, I mean, I can't praise him and his entire team enough for everything they’re doing.”