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Dam disgrace: Auditor's report reveals some safety checks 14 years overdue

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The Government body in charge of ensuring the State’s dams meet safety requirements has failed to effectively monitor compliance, with safety inspections more than a decade overdue.

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An Auditor-General’s reporting into Regulating Dam Safety, tabled on Wednesday, contains a highly-critical assessment of the way in which the State’s 107 dams, owned by state entities, local governments, private owners and industry, are monitored. One dam safety inspection was five years overdue, another was four and half years overdue.

The report examined how the Department of Regional Development, Manufacturing and Water collects and uses information from dam owners to manage the risks to safety.

It found that at February 2021, eight significant safety reports and 14 annual notifications were overdue.

“Some of the legislatively required reports were significantly late, in one case by five years. One owner we visited commented on the lack of follow-up by the department on late reports.”

The audit report contains a damning list of examples of late and overdue compliance documents.

A spokesperson for the RDMW Department told In Queensland that a dedicated project team has been set up to address the nine recommendations made by the audit report and that five of the nine had been implemented and the rest were on track to be completed by mid 2022.

The Cloncurry Shire Council’s Chinaman Creek Dam, was four years, seven months and 26 days late in lodging its 20-year safety review.

And the Lake Mitchel Dam, on the Southedge Daintree Pastoral Company, was an astounding 14 years, two months and two days late with the 20-year safety review.

The auditor’s report found the department failed to effectively collect information on its dam safety upgrade schedule which gave dam owners target dates in which to upgrade spillways based on capacity to safely release floodwaters.

Under the program, eight spillways must be upgraded by 2025 and 30 by 2035, costing $3.1 billion.

“The department is not effectively monitoring progress to ensure all the upgrades will be completed by the upcoming 2025 and/or 2035 deadlines.”

The report is critical of the department’s compliance monitoring.

“It uses spreadsheets to monitor compliance but the individual spreadsheets are not up to date, complete or accurate. This makes it difficult for the department to track whether dam owners are conducting and providing key reports on dam safety inspections on time. We found examples of inspection reports being significantly overdue.”

The audit report is critical of the department’s use of voluntary compliance for safety and a reluctance to use an enforcement measures such as fines and court action, despite examples of dam owners consistently not providing the legally required safety notifications and reports on time.

“(The department) cannot assess whether the dams are compliant with the safety standards if the safety reports are considerably late or not provided at all. These gaps in information gathering, systems, monitoring and enforcement practices limit the department’s effectiveness as a regulator.”

The report also questioned the department’s guidelines for dams with inadequate spillway capacity – giving them 30 years to complete upgrades and comply with flood capacity safety standards.

It compares the Queensland case to New South Wales, which gave dam owners 10 to 20 years to upgrade spillway capacities.

“The department was unable to provide an analysis of the risks associated with setting the 30-year time frame. We noted New South Wales adopted different time frames. Without an analysis of the risks for these time frames, it is not possible to determine if Queensland’s time frames will ensure safety risks are managed effectively.”

And the original estimate of $500 million for a dam upgrade program to 2035 has now blown out to a massive $4.6 billion.

“The department does not have a fully costed timetable for when owners will complete the 2025 and 2035 upgrades. It has not actively managed the risk that affordability of significant upgrades could delay upgrades.

The department spokesperson said that all dams which are due to be upgraded by 2025 are on schedule and that all State-owned dams are safe and part of a rolling dam improvement program.

“Going forward, all referable dams owners – including those private owners – will be required to provide an annual report regarding their progress on any referable dams that require safety upgrades,” the spokesperson said.

When floods devastated Queensland in late 2010 and early 2011, 35 people lost their lives and 30,000 homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed. The 2012 Queensland Floods Commission of Inquiry examined key risk factors and the department had developed a risk prioritisation process based on these – but for only half its dams.

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