A Wednesday afternoon meeting between Cumming and state officials established some clarity in how to proceed in the wake of a May 19 dam break that disturbed a Lake Lanier cove.
Jeff Bishop, field compliance officer with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Environmental Protection Division, met with Tim Rainey, operations project manager with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and Cumming Planning and Zoning Director Scott Morgan.
The men inspected the area along Sanders Road, where torrents of water and tons of dirt crossed from Lake Alice into a cove of nearby Lake Lanier following nearly 7 inches of rainfall.
The old earthen dam sat between Market Place Boulevard Extension, across from Cumming Town Center, and Sanders Road. The break left a dense, mud-filled cove that both concerns and frustrates Lanier residents.
“Usually whoever owns the dirt and the dam are the same person,” Bishop said.
But in this case, while the city of Cumming owns a large portion of Lake Alice, the EPD has determined the full owner of the dam is the Mashburn family.
Bert Langley, the EPD’s district coordinator, later expanded on that point.
“None of this was city property, so their responsibility for the situation goes away and it rests back on the Mashburn family, and that’s who we’re trying to meet with,” Langley said. “What they have to do is come up with a plan to stabilize the area and remove the sediment that’s been released to state waters.”
Langley said the Mashburns are in violation of the Georgia Water Quality Control Act for the discharge of sediment and dirt into the lake.
Catherine Amos, one of six members of the Mashburn family involved in ownership of the dam, did not attend the meeting Wednesday.
Reached by phone Thursday morning, she said the family has “not been cited with any violation.”
While she had spoken to Bishop after he toured the area Wednesday, Amos said the official had indicated the division was “just beginning their investigation.”
“It was a flood, it was a total flood,” she said. “Our dam was inspected the last time and it was found safe. It’s been there 78 years and it’s held water for 78 years and this was an unprecedented rainfall and the dam just couldn’t hold it this time.”
Tom Woosley, manager of the state’s Safe Dams Program, confirmed the department inspects each dam in the state every five years, usually looking downstream to make sure no new homes or other developments have popped up. The last inspection of the Lake Alice dam was several years ago.
“Last Monday when we got a call that the dam had failed, we did an inspection then too,” he said. “When we get calls about failures or possible failures, we try to respond.”
While Woosley said insurance companies may look into negligence or cause, his department simply is there to confirm there was a failure and get “good historical information so we can learn from it for future references.”
He would not comment on a possible cause of the collapse, but noted it “certainly looks like at least a contributing factor was the excessive rainfall.”
“From the pictures and the report I’ve read, it’s just your typical Category 2, low-hazard dam,” he said. “There were trees growing on it. That’s one thing we don’t allow.
“Years ago, it used to be a belief that trees were a good thing on a dam. But the past 20-30 years, that philosophy has changed to where trees are ... more potentially harmful than good.”
With ownership determined, Langley said the next steps need to happen quickly.
According to Langley, the Mashburn family must hire a consultant or construction company to dredge the sediment from the cove.
This will require a permit from the corps, which is typically a time-consuming process. However, Langley said it could be expedited based on the situation.
“The longer it takes, the more expensive it’s going to be to do, unfortunately,” he said. “It spreads the material over a broader area. Any event like this, the sooner you can get involved at the beginning, the better.”
At issue also is the safety of the water in and around the cove.
Langley said the EPD was testing Thursday for fecal coliform levels in the area, as residents have been “concerned that the fecal level may be high.”
While some elevation is common this time of year, Langley said the testing should show if the levels are excessively high. Regardless, he recommended residents not swim in that part of the lake.
“The EPD never recommends people swim in water like that,” Langley said.
District 26 state Rep. Geoff Duncan, a Republican from Cumming, said he’s been working with EPD director Judson Turner to ensure public safety is a priority.
“We have to make sure that water is safe and in addition we’ve got to stop any sort of remnant outflows of Lake Alice, which the county has tested within the last couple of days at extremely elevated levels,” said Duncan, adding those levels would likely be diluted once entering Lanier.
“But we need certainty ... in this time of uncertainty where everyone seems to be looking around to see who’s in charge, I need the EPD to step up and be in charge, and I have been reassured that’s going to happen.”
Langley said the public would be notified if any levels are excessive, however the next step toward rectifying the cause of the problem rests with the Mashburn family.
Inaction, he said, could result in fines of $50,000 per day.
“But our intent is not to have to do that,” he said. “Our intent is to work cooperatively and get the problem fixed.
“Our job is to regulate the activity and get them back in compliance, but it’s their job to do the actual work.”
Officials have previously said the dam does not necessarily need to be rebuilt, but steps must be taken to prevent further runoff.