Robust inspection program keeps focus on safety at Alabama Power hydroelectric dams

Robust inspection program keeps focus on safety at Alabama Power hydroelectric dams
Alabama Power's 14 hydroelectric dams are routinely inspected and managed for safety. (Wynter Byrd/Alabama NewsCenter)

 

In the wake of a report questioning the safety of some dams in the state, Alabama Power officials say they’ve always kept a close watch on the company’s 14 hydroelectric dams, with year-round inspections and rigorous maintenance.

“Because of the robust dam safety inspection program we have in place and the constant monitoring of our dams, we are confident any issues would be detected well in advance of them becoming problematic,” said Richard Mickwee, dam safety and surveillance supervisor for Southern Company Generation’s Hydro Services team in Alabama. “We’ve had a dam safety inspection program for Alabama Power’s hydro facilities for more than 50 years, so we have a long-running institutional history and the knowledge to keep our dams safe.”

The Alabama Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers released a report in December grading infrastructure, saying only 2 percent of known dams are inspected for safety and have emergency action plans in place.

Alabama Power dams are monitored and inspected by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, but the company has its own reasons for a high threshold of oversight, Mickwee said.

“We have a much more vested interest in the safety of our dams than any state or federal governing authority,” Mickwee said. “These are our structures and our legal responsibility should something go wrong. We’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do, it’s important to us as an electric utility, and as servants of the public.”

Twice each week, Alabama Power employees make a checklist inspection of each dam. They receive annual training on the identification of conditions that could lead to problems. A more comprehensive inspection is conducted annually by the Hydro Services team of safety engineers. Once every five years, an independent outside expert conducts an exhaustive audit of the condition and stability of each dam.

Twice weekly inspections are conducted to monitor conditions such as seepage, structural distress or unusual aspects itemized for each dam, Mickwee explained. Annual inspections include close observation of earthen embankments; all concrete structures such as powerhouses and spillways; and safety instrumentation data.

“We walk every inch of every dam,” Mickwee said.

At each hydroelectric dam, Alabama Power has emergency action plans for the unlikely event of a failure. In addition, Alabama Power annually performs emergency drills at each dam. Three times every five years the company conducts large-scale comprehensive exercises with local and state emergency management agencies and first-responders in which a dam failure is simulated.

Mickwee said he has proof of Alabama Power’s rigorous oversight and monitoring.

“I’ve taken calls at 2 o’clock in the morning when someone noticed an unusual instrument reading,” Mickwee said. “We’re on call 24/7, 365 days a year.”

Learn more about Alabama’s hydroelectric facilities at www.apcshorelines.com.

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