Several industry groups, worried about deficient state and local dams, want Congress to authorize $350 million over four years to rehabilitate those structures. The organizations have lined up behind a House bill that would provide funds and set up a Federal Emergency Management Agency program to oversee the grants.

Changes Granholm proposes outsourcing. (Photo courtesy of
Michigan Gov.)

The bill, H.R. 1105, introduced March 3 by Rep. Sue Kelly (R-N.Y.), is backed by the Dam Safety Coalition, which includes the American Society of Civil Engineers, Association of State Dam Safety Officials and others. ASDSO says there are more than 3,500 unsafe dams and it will take about $10 billion to repair the most critical ones.

"There is a significant need for dam repair and rehab," says Brian T. Pallasch, ASCE director of government relations. "The unsafe dams are increasing in age and we need to protect the public by repairing them now." Privately owned dams also are a problem. State agencies regulate them, but owners are responsible for their safety.

Federal agencies also see dam safety as a key program. For fiscal 2006, the Bureau of Reclamation seeks $69.9 million for dam safety, up from $64 million in 2005. Commissioner John Keys told House appropriators March 3 that dam safety "is one of Reclamation’s highest priorities." He notes that about half of its dams were built between 1900 and 1950.

Kelly introduced the same bill last September, but the 108th Congress ended without a hearing. That could change this year. "We need to educate political leaders and the neighboring public about this growing problem," says Pallasch. "Last year after heavy rains, 18 dams failed and 25 were weakened in New Jersey, causing an estimated $50 million in damage–and they had a well-funded program."

Under the bill, money from the program could not be used to contract out dam inspections. Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm’s (D) recent controversial decision to outsource inspections by October puts her state in a distinct minority. A 2003 ASDSO survey found all states except Illinois use state inspectors. Kansas, Indiana, Montana, Oklahoma and Virginia require owners of high-hazard dams to hire consultants.

"Most of our states still do inspections in-house," says Lori C. Spragens, executive director of ASDSO. "We don’t have a formal stand on the issue of outsourcing but, informally, our state regulatory members don’t feel it’s a good idea because it would be a dumbing down of the regulatory process, consisting of isolated inspections and no systematic oversight." ASDSO is looking at developing a guideline on the issue.

Amtrak: Democrats Seek Big Boost in Security Funding
One year after the March 11, 2004, terrorist bombings that killed dozens on Madrid’s rail system, some Senate Democrats are urging colleagues to pass a proposal to hike security funds for Amtrak.

Last year, the Senate approved a bill to provide $1.1 billion for rail security over five years, including $725 million for Amtrak, but the House didn’t act. Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) included 2004’s rail measure in a broad anti-terror bill he introduced Jan. 24. Of Amtrak’s share, $667 million is for improvements to Northeast Corridor tunnels. Biden’s bill has just 12 co-sponsors, all Democrats.

Amtrak says safety-related work at its New York tunnels continues this year, including ventilation and floodgate upgrades and a new fire suppression system.

DOE: Yucca Moun-tain Application Done by Year’s End
A Dept. of Energy official says the agency will wrap up internal work by the end of December on its application to license a nuclear waste repository beneath Nevada’s Yucca Mountain. But no decision has been made yet on when to file that application with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, says Theodore J. Garrish, deputy director of DOE’s office of civilian waste management.

Garrish told Senate appropriators March 10 that the Environmental Protection Agency is revising its radiation standard for the repository. Last July, a federal appeals court said EPA’s previous benchmark, protecting against releases at the site for 10,000 years, violated the National Energy Policy Act. DOE is seeking $651 million for Yucca Mountain in fiscal 2006, up from $577 million this year.

Stormwater: EPA Extends Deadline For Some Permits
The Environmental Protection Agency is extending the deadline for complying with stormwater permits for oil and gas construction that disturbs one to five acres.The deadline was this month, but EPA extended it until June 2006. EPA based its decision on findings in a Government Accountability Office study released March 14. GAO says permits boost industry costs but the size of the increase is hard to quantify.

Compiled by Tom Ichniowski and Sherie Winston