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Oroville Dam spillway break

Dam Sexism and Racism

Or are nepotism, faulty design, and coverups to blame?

By Lloyd Billingsley, February 8, 2019 3:09 pm

Officials of the Oroville Dam, the Sacramento Bee reports, “stole equipment, cooked financial books to conceal wrongdoing, destroyed evidence and fostered a toxic culture of sexual and racial harassment that included slurs and nooses hung where a black worker would find them.”

Female Department of Water Resources employees suffered “similar derogatory treatment,” a lawsuit recently filed in Sacramento also charges. The case includes declarations from UC Davis sociology professor Kimberlee Shauman and Cal State Sacramento management professor Amy Mickel, who contend that “a toxic workplace culture could have factored into the spillway failure.” Californians have good cause to place the blame elsewhere.

Oroville Dam was constructed in 1968 and remains the nation’s highest dam. On February 7, 2017, the dam’s concrete spillway failed, launching fears of a complete dam failure, and forcing the evacuation of 188,000 people.  Government engineers knew for decades that the alternate earthen spillway was unreliable but failed to reinforce it with concrete. As Rep. John Garamendi (D-CA) famously put it, the dirt spillway “worked fine until it had to be used, in which case it didn’t work so well.”

Governor Jerry Brown told reporters he was unaware of warnings about the emergency spillway and added, “I’m glad we found out about it.” As Brown explained, “We live in a world of risk. Stuff happens and we respond.” As it happens, one of the government’s first moves was to dam up the flow of information on safety issues.

Governor Brown and state water bureaucrats blocked access to the dam’s design specifications, federal inspection reports, technical documents, and other crucial information. Much of that emerged in Independent Forensic Team Report: Oroville Dam Spillway Incident, a 584-page report that chalks up the disaster to “a complex interaction of relatively common physical, human, organizational, and industry factors, starting with the design of the project and continuing until the incident.”

On page 59 of this document, readers learn that the principal designer for both Oroville spillways “was hired directly from a university post-graduate program, with prior engineering employment experience limited to one or two summers.” And the designer had “no prior professional experience designing spillways” and “no instruction on spillway design” in college coursework. The forensic team “finds it striking that such an inexperienced engineer was given the responsibility of designing the spillways of what is still the tallest dam in the US.”

Whether or not they live near the dam, California taxpayers may find it striking that this massive, detailed report fails to name this non-engineer. A longtime DWR employee denied that there was any such person, which Californians might take as confirmation that there was.

Though obviously unqualified and incompetent, this person’s political connections were doubtless strong. That’s the simplest explanation why the incompetent grad student got the job and why the expert team keeps the identity a secret. Taxpayers statewide have good cause to regard the report as part of the ongoing cover-up of nepotism, faulty design, and improper maintenance.

Now comes a lawsuit blaming the spillway failure on a “toxic workplace culture” of racism and sexism. If Californians see this lawsuit as part of the coverup, it would be hard to blame them. Californians might also recall the response of Gov. Jerry Brown when he was informed of lingering safety risks on the new $6.5 billion span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, built with cheap Chinese steel.

As Brown told reporters, “I mean, look, shit happens.”

Lloyd is a policy fellow with the Independent Institute; a version of this piece appeared in the Beacon.

Lloyd Billingsley

Lloyd Billingsley has written for the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, and others. He covered the Marsh trial for City Journal and His most recent crime book is Lethal Injections: Elizabeth Tracy Mae Wettlaufer, Canada’s Serial Killer Nurse. His new book about the 2013 Davis murders, "A Shut and Open Case" is now available at Amazon. Lloyd isa policy fellow with the Independent Institute and a columnist for the Daily Caller.

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