FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARBULLETIN.COM
Three weeks after the failure of Ka Loko Dam on Kauai, destruction from flooding was still evident at the home of Ben Guevara along Wailapa Stream, about a half-mile downstream of Kuhio Highway.
Ka Loko Dam owner investigating cause of breach
The state's inquiry aims to shift blame, Pflueger's lawyer says
KILAUEA, Kauai » The lawyer for the owner of Ka Loko Dam said yesterday they have started their own investigation into what caused the March 14 dam breach that killed seven people.
William McCorriston, Ka Loko owner James Pflueger's attorney, said he and his client "have no confidence" in the state Attorney General's investigation, so they have hired their own experts to find out what caused the breach.
Already their investigation has turned up a U.S. Department of Agriculture report that said the dam was poorly cared for and was seeping as early as 1981, its structural integrity was questioned by investigators and that an emergency concrete spillway did exist to bleed water out of the reservoir when it was full.
The spillway has not been found by engineers or state investigators, and Pflueger has said repeatedly that he did not even know the concrete was there, despite owning part of the reservoir as a trustee of his grandmother's estate for years before buying the dam from former sugar company C. Brewer & Co. in 1987.
Some people on Kauai have alleged that the dam's concrete spillway had been tampered with.
McCorriston said that the report's information supports his client's claim that poor maintenance, rather than any work done to the dam, caused the breach.
He added that when Pflueger bought two-thirds of the reservoir, including the dam, in 1987, he never checked for the spillway.
"The whole thing, when Jimmy took it over, was overgrown," McCorriston said. "The (inflow) ditches and everything was in poor shape."
Meanwhile, "the state's doing an investigation, spending a million dollars to prove that the spillway" was the problem and thus getting themselves off the hook, McCorriston added. "That's why we're doing our own investigation, which is ongoing."
McCorriston said their investigation would look into questions about what happened to the spillway and what caused the breach, especially whether water went over the top of the dam, what he called "the biggest question of all."
McCorriston also took numerous shots at Kilauea Irrigation owner Tom Hitch. The small water utility, originally part of C. Brewer, supplies agricultural water from Ka Loko to 20 farmers.
Pflueger claims that it was Hitch's responsibility to maintain the reservoir, including the inflow ditches and the dam, and the state's responsibility to inspect the area.
If Hitch knew the spillway was not functioning, "it's like sitting in the bathtub knowing the drain didn't work and leaving the water on," McCorriston said yesterday.
Hitch did not return multiple calls for comment, but in earlier interviews has said, "Any allegation that lack of maintenance was the reason the dam failed is both false and misleading."
Kilauea Irrigation is also under investigation by the Public Utilities Commission because of the deaths that resulted from the breach. Hitch has said he is cooperating with both the Attorney General's investigation and the PUC inquiry.
In earlier interviews, Hitch also said he remembered the spillway, and described it as McCorriston said it appeared in the report: mostly dirt and about 25 feet wide, with a concrete slab 15 feet across in the middle.
However, McCorriston said his client believed a lower, dirt portion north of the dam was the spillway. He added that the report, which was finalized in 1984, also concluded the dirt portion of the spillway was not functioning, even if the concrete portion was working.
McCorriston said his investigation would get to the truth.
"I'm quite confident it will be a number of factors, the most obvious of which is why didn't somebody turn off the water to Ka Loko," the lawyer added.
Attorney General Mark Bennett was traveling and could not be reached for comment.
Bennett has maintained that his investigators will follow up any information they gather, no matter the implication.