Flood Risk

Protecting Dam Breach Inundation Zones

Dam failures are a ‘low probability but high consequence’ event best addressed by preparation and maintenance.
By: | February 28, 2017 • 7 min read

After a five-year drought, the rains finally returned to California this winter. Lake Oroville, which was formed in 1967 at the foot of the Sierra Mountains by the nation’s tallest dam, began to refill.

An atmospheric river, colloquially known as a “Pineapple Express,” continued dropping water at such a pace that it replenished the reservoir and then some. The swollen lake forced the excess water onto an emergency spillway alongside the Oroville Dam for the first time in half a century.

The spillway cement crumbled and sent a cascade of water down the mountainside. Engineers feared the erosion compromised not only the spillway but also the 770-foot-tall earthen dam.

An emergency evacuation was hastily ordered and nearly 190,000 residents were forced to flee their homes. Traffic clogged roads. Fortunately, no life was lost and water levels eventually receded.

“There has to be a more robust conversation around flood.” — John Dickson president, NFS Edge Insurance Agency

For many, this crisis is a wake-up call for renewed assessment of the aging infrastructure of the U.S. dam system and the emergency response plans drawn to prevent loss of life in the event of a failure.

Dams Exceeding Effective Dates

Nearly all of the 700 dams managed by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are more than 30 years old. More than half have reached or exceeded the 50-year service lives for which they were designed. Oroville Dam turns 50 next year.

Tim McCarty, risk control manager, Trident Public Risk Solutions

Tim McCarty is a risk control manager at Trident Public Risk Solutions, which insures a wide range of municipalities including those in close proximity to a dam. His statistics on the aging dam system in the U.S. are even more alarming.

“The average age of our dams nationwide is 56 years,” he says. “And, the average age of a failed dam is 62 years.

“So we’re kind of reaching that point where we’re starting to have some very old infrastructure and if it’s not properly maintained we may see repeats of this type of an incidence,” McCarty said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency says dam failures are a “low probability but high consequence” event.

Since they rarely occur, many people who live downstream in “dam breach inundation zones” are completely unaware of the potential hazard. But they are, in fact, at the mercy of the dam’s ongoing health.

“The only time the concept is front and center is when water is rushing over the dam,” said John Dickson, president of NFS Edge Insurance Agency.

“I worry constantly that that’s a total disservice to the American people. We need to have the conversation when the sun is shining.”

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Dams are a vital part of the U.S. infrastructure. They provide flood protection, water supply, hydropower, irrigation and recreation. But all it takes is one busy muskrat to compromise the integrity and cause a breach.

The operators of the Oroville Dam were advised in 2005 to shore up the spillway with concrete. For a dozen years, the expensive recommendation was tabled. The reasoning was the emergency spillway was never used because the lake water never rose high enough.

“With a dam breach, when it fails, it fails quickly, the water comes out quickly and there’s a limited amount of time.” — Dr. Louis Gritzo, vice president and manager of research, FM Global.

But when it finally did, the emergency response — mass evacuations and helicopters conducting air drops of dirt and boulders to fortify the dam —averted a catastrophe.  But it also was an expense way beyond the cost of maintenance.

Perhaps most alarming, not all people received the emergency notification when the evacuation was called, according to the Associated Press.

Dams Fail Quickly

Every four years, the American Society of Civil Engineers issues a “Report Card for America’s Infrastructure.” Bridges, roads, tunnel systems are evaluated on capacity, condition, funding, future need, operation and maintenance, public safety, resilience and innovation.

Dams received a “D” grade in the 2013 report. The next report is due March 9, and there is no expectation for a major shift in that grade. The Army Corps of Engineers estimated it would currently take $24 billion to fix all dams that need repairs.

State agencies regulate most of the nation’s 84,000 dams. Unlike bridges and roads, the U.S. government may inspect the dams but they don’t maintain most of them. More than 65 percent are privately owned and those owners may lack the money needed for adequate maintenance.

Louis Gritzo, vice president and manager of research, FM Global

Experts say dam owners need to know how their structures are aging and prepare for the repairs that need to be done. Develop a timeline for a replacement and how to respond if the dam fails.

“We’re chasing an aging population,” said Louis Gritzo, vice president and manager of research with FM Global.

It is most important to conduct regular inspections and deal with what seems to be minor issues immediately.

“Many people just think you build a dam and it’s just there and fades into the background,” McCarty said.

“But it really is an active system that has to be maintained just like a road or a bridge.”

Gritzo said he discusses with clients opportunities to retrofit facilities and fill in the weak spots. More often than not, an engineer looks at an aging structure and weighs when it is best for a new build. The cost of that is often too challenging, Gritzo said.

Unlike a river flooding over its banks, a dam breach may occur with little to no warning. For that reason, an emergency response plan is needed to lay out how much time is required to get mitigation efforts in place and who is responsible for completing each task.

Conduct Hazard Assessments

“With a dam breach, when it fails, it fails quickly, the water comes out quickly and there’s a limited amount of time,” said Gritzo.

Risk managers need to conduct a very good hazard assessment in the event one of these dams has a catastrophic failure. FM Global uses tools such as complex computer models to calculate different breach scenarios and determines where the water might go and how much flooding might occur when it gets there.

As of 2015, a quarter of dams designated “high hazard” don’t have an EAP.

The insurer works with clients to decide if that amount of water is something they can protect a facility against, or if it’s too large.

“If it’s a meter of water or less you can protect against it,” Gritzo said. “That’s an easy cut-off point.”

More than a meter of water and there’s much fewer protection measures available.

The risk manager that is associated with the facility needs to know the risk exposure, how to react and who to contact in an emergency.

As of 2012, there were 13,991 dams classified as “high hazard,” up 3,000 from a decade earlier.

When a dam is designated a “high hazard,” it means there’s a potential for loss of life if it fails. All high hazard dams require an emergency action plan (EAP). Dams with a “low hazard” or “significant hazard” may have a low expectation for loss of life but still carry potential for damage to surrounding terrain, roads or buildings.

As of 2015, a quarter of dams designated “high hazard” don’t have an EAP. Sometimes, the owners don’t even know they are labeled high hazard, McCarty said.

Risk managers should contact the authority or municipality that creates the EAP to start an ongoing communication and organize emergency drills.

“The time to be swapping business cards and introducing yourself is not when there’s an emergency,” Gritzo said.

John Dickson president, NFS Edge Insurance Agency

McCarty periodically reviews the state assessments of dams in his clients’ communities to try to ascertain the condition of the dams and what kind of ongoing maintenance has been required. He also checks to make sure each community has an EAP in place should something occur.

“Our clients are doing a great job with it, but we know that there are a lot of dams that aren’t getting the attention they need,” McCarty said.

“There has to be a more robust conversation around flood,” said Dickson of NFS Edge.

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“The way we do that is not responding in the face of imminent disaster but having the conversation when the levee is not about to be breached or the spillway is not being activated because the dam is at historic highs.”

Municipal leaders should prepare to address the ongoing maintenance that is needed, the EAP they have in place and the responsibilities that go along with having a dam, McCarty said.

“We’ve had an incident here that has heightened our awareness. Those things tend to tail off as time passes,” McCarty said.

“We really need to keep this in our collective memories otherwise we’ll see more and more of these incidents occur.”

Juliann Walsh is a staff writer at Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

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Robotics Risk

Rise of the Cobots

Collaborative robots, known as cobots, are rapidly expanding in the workforce due to their versatility. But they bring with them liability concerns.
By: | May 2, 2017 • 5 min read

When the Stanford Shopping Center in Palo Alto hired mobile collaborative robots to bolster security patrols, the goal was to improve costs and safety.

Once the autonomous robotic guards took up their beats — bedecked with alarms, motion sensors, live video streaming and forensics capabilities — no one imagined what would happen next.

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For some reason,  a cobots’ sensors didn’t pick up the movement of a toddler on the sidewalk who was trying to play with the 5-foot-tall, egg-shaped figure.

The 300-pound robot was programmed to stop for shoppers, but it knocked down the child and then ran over his feet while his parents helplessly watched.

Engaged to help, this cobot instead did harm, yet the use of cobots is growing rapidly.

Cobots are the fastest growing segment of the robotics industry, which is projected to hit $135.4 billion in 2019, according to tech research firm IDC.

“Robots are embedding themselves more and more into our lives every day,” said Morgan Kyte, a senior vice president at Marsh.

“Collaborative robots have taken the robotics industry by storm over the past several years,” said Bob Doyle, director of communications at the Robotic Industries Association (RIA).

When traditional robots joined the U.S. workforce in the 1960s, they were often assigned one specific task and put to work safely away from humans in a fenced area.

Today, they are rapidly being deployed in the automotive, plastics, electronics assembly, machine tooling and health care industries due to their ability to function in tandem with human co-workers.

More than 24,000 robots valued at $1.3 billion were ordered from North American companies last year, according to the RIA.

Cobots Rapidly Gain Popularity

Cobots are cheaper, more versatile and lighter, and often have a faster return on investment compared to traditional robots. Some cobots even employ artificial intelligence (AI) so they can adapt to their environment, learn new tasks and improve on their skills.

Bob Doyle, director of communications, Robotic Industry Association

Their software is simple to program, so companies don’t need a computer programmer, called a robotic integrator, to come on site to tweak duties. Most employees can learn how to program them.

While the introduction of cobots into the workplace can bring great productivity gains, it also introduces risk mitigation challenges.

“Where does the problem lie when accidents happen and which insurance covers it?” asked attorney Garry Mathiason, co-chair of the robotics, AI and automation industry group at the law firm Littler Mendelson PC in San Francisco.

“Cobots are still machines and things can go awry in many ways,” Marsh’s Kyte said.

“The robot can fail. A subcomponent can fail. It can draw the wrong conclusions.”

If something goes amiss, exposure may fall to many different parties:  the manufacturer of the cobot, the software developer and/or the purchaser of the cobot, to name a few.

Is it a product defect? Was it an issue in the base code or in the design? Was something done in the cobot’s training? Was it user error?

“Cobots are still machines and things can go awry in many ways.” — Morgan Kyte, senior vice president, Marsh

Is it a workers’ compensation case or a liability issue?

“If you get injured in the workplace, there’s no debate as to liability,” Mathiason said.

But if the employee attributes the injury to a poorly designed or programmed machine and sues the manufacturer of the equipment, that’s not limited by workers’ comp, he added.

Garry Mathiason, co-chair, robotics, AI and automation industry group, Littler Mendelson PC

In the case of a worker killed by a cobot in Grand Rapids, Mich., in 2015, the worker’s spouse filed suit against five of the companies responsible for manufacturing the machine.

“It’s going to be unique each time,” Kyte said.

“The issue that keeps me awake at night is that people are so impressed with what a cobot can do, and so they ask it to do a task that it wasn’t meant to perform,” Mathiason said.

Privacy is another consideration.

If the cobot records what is happening around it, takes pictures of its environment and the people in it, an employee or customer might claim a privacy violation.

A public sign disclosing the cobot’s ability to record video or take pictures may be a simple solution. And yet, it is often overlooked, Mathiason said.

Growing Pains in the Industry

There are going to be growing pains as the industry blossoms in advance of any legal and regulatory systems, Mathiason said.

He suggests companies take several mitigation steps before introducing cobots to the workplace.

First, conduct a safety audit that specifically covers robotics. Make sure to properly investigate the use of the technology and consider all options. Run a pilot program to test it out.

Most importantly, he said, assign someone in the organization to get up to speed on the technology and then continuously follow it for updates and new uses.

The Robotics Industry Association has been working with the government to set up safety standards. One employee can join a cobot member association to receive the latest information on regulations.

“I think there’s a lot of confusion about this technology and people see so many things that could go wrong,” Mathiason said.

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“But if you handle it properly with the safety audit, the robotics audit, and pay attention to what the standards are, it’s going to be the opposite; there will be fewer problems.

“And you might even see in your experience rating that you are going to [get] a better price to the policy,” he added.

Without forethought, coverage may slip through the cracks. General liability, E&O, business interruption, personal injury, cyber and privacy claims can all be involved.

AIG’s Lexington Insurance introduced an insurance product in 2015 to address the gray areas cobots and robots create. The coverage brings together general and products liability, robotics errors and omissions, and risk management services, all three of which are tailored for the robotics industry. Minimum premium is $25,000.

Insurers are using lessons learned from the creation of cyber liability policies and are applying it to robotics coverage, Kyte said.

“The robotics industry has been very safe for the last 30 years,” RIA’s Doyle said. “It really does have a good track record and we want that to continue.” &

Juliann Walsh is a staff writer at Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]