State seeks hefty fine against owners of Kauai dam, claiming years of inaction on safety threats

An attorney said the fines are excessive.
Published: Sep. 23, 2022 at 4:40 PM HST|Updated: Sep. 23, 2022 at 5:57 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The state Department of Land and Natural Resources is seeking to fine the owners of a Kauai dam at least $5,000 a day, alleging the potential collapse of the dam could endanger lives.

But an attorney for Mauka Dam’s owners said the fines are excessive and questioned the state’s classification of the structure as high hazard.

“The potential size of the fine being suggested could amount to about $1.5 million per year,” said Greg Kugle, attorney for the Eric Knudsen Trust.

“We strongly disagree with the characterization of the 2007 study that characterized this dam as a high hazard. That was a study that was rushed and flawed.”

DLNR staffers said the dam’s owners refused to follow safety instructions and failed multiple inspections.

The issues included high water levels that rose to unsafe heights and overgrowth that could potentially block the dam’s emergency spillway, threatening the structure.

“There’s not just a risk for people living downstream of the dam but the downstream population also includes critical facilities such as schools and a fire station,” said Carty Chang, DLNR engineering division chief engineer.

“Although these may sound like harsh fines, please remember that these dam owners have been on notice since 2009 and have neglected their obligation to protect life and property.”

The Mauka Dam is a 112-year-old earthen structure located upstream from Koloa town.

It can hold up to 112 million gallons of water.

On its website, the DLNR posted dozens of photos of potential safety problems at the dam, such as seepage, inadequate erosion protections, lack of vegetation maintenance and high water levels.

“This being an embankment structure, it is highly susceptible to overtopping failures,” said Edwin Matsuda, head of the DLNR’s flood control and dam safety section.

“In order to mitigate that kind of failure mechanism the dam needs to have a spillway that is adequately sized.”