Dam That Hasn’t Been Inspected in Over 30 Years Also Doesn’t Exist, Probably

Due to the Oroville Dam emergency in California, data journalists all over the country were asking themselves: what does this mean for our state?

A federal database called the National Inventory of Dams (NID) was my first stop. I filtered the database for North Carolina and pulled out each field.

Two fields stood out as potential for investigation: the last year the dam was inspected and how frequently the dam is required to be inspected.

Now, I had a real question. I wrote it in the form of a fill-in-the-blank sentence, and calculated the answer with the help of some custom fields:

  • The longest time a dam has gone without inspection is 37 years. That dam is Phillips Pond and is located in Mitchell County.

In short: whoa if true. But was it? My next step was to take a look for myself, and since Mitchell County is about a four-hour drive from where I was, I pulled it up in Google Earth according to the latitude/longitude in the dataset:

Look, water!

There is certainly a body of water on this map, but when you look through Google Earth:

…Or not.

Maybe not so much. But there was, perhaps, a way to figure out if there was actually a dam there, and that was the Carquest Auto Parts just some feet away from the supposed Phillips Pond dam. So I called.

A woman with a Southern drawl answered the phone and informed me that she’d been around that area plenty of times, but hadn’t seen anything that looked like a dam. The closest dam she knew of, she said, was at Grassy Creek.

Shortly after I got off the phone with the woman from Carquest, I got on the phone with a dam safety assistant director from the N.C. Department of the Environment. She informed me that the Phillips Pond dam had been removed years earlier.

Later I investigated Grassy Creek — turns out, just a 15 minute drive from Carquest Auto Parts in Mitchell County was Altapass Dam, the only dam recorded for Grassy Creek.

Yep, that’s a dam.

Owned by a man named Larry Brown, the NID database told me, Altapass Dam was overdue for its inspection by two years. Here, as I’m sure you’re curious by now, is what the database tells us, allegedly, about the dams in Mitchell County:

Dam Name City Last Inspection Overdue for Inspection? Full Years Since Last Inspection
Phillips Pond Not Specified 1/25/78 yes 37
Strawberry Ridge Dam Boonford 12/28/94 yes 21
Emerald Lake Dam Not Specified 1/17/95 yes 20
Spruce Pine Water Supply #2 Spruce Pine 6/30/11 yes 4
Altapass Dam Grassy Creek 3/4/11 yes 4
Diamond Lake Dam Penland 4/8/09 yes 6
Lowery Pond Dam Spruce Pine 3/3/15 no 0
Spruce Pine Water Supply Dam #1 Spruce Pine 2/21/13 no 2
Saylors Lake Dam Loafers Glory 6/9/14 no 1
Swiss Pine Lake Dam Spruce Pine 3/3/15 no 0
Deer Park Lake Penland 2/26/14 no 1
Unimin Red Hill Quartz Plant Dam Huntdale 9/22/15 no 0
Cotton Dam Bean’s Creek 7/30/12 no 3
Unimin Crystal Water Supply Pond Dam Not Specified 9/22/15 no 0
Unimin Hawkins Sediment Basin 4 Spruce Pine 4/1/15 no 0

The lesson here? Not everything is as it seems. Humans on the ground can sometimes tell you more than a database will. And calling experts — namely, the people who have access to your data and use it — is vital to provide context for your story.

 

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