Courtesy NET News
On March 14, 2019, a massive ice jam forcing its way down the Niobrara River shredded the 92-year-old hydroelectric dam. A wall of water and ice tore through homes, farms and eventually leveled part of the town of Niobrara. Video and photos of the skeletal remains of Spencer Dam became some of the most striking images following the floods in north-central Nebraska.
When the dam failed in the early morning hours, 71-year old Vietnam veteran Kenny Angel apparently spent the night at the residence next to the family-owned bar and concert venue, the Straw Bale Saloon. The structures sat just a few hundred feet downstream from the dam. Having never located Angel's body, he was declared legally dead in June 2019, and the court listed his cause of death as "downing."
In a complaint filed in Holt County District Court, Angel's wife Linda claims "the failure of Spencer Dam and the resulting damage and loss of life were a direct and proximate result of the negligence of NPPD" and the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources (NDNR). The NDNR is cited in the lawsuit but the department is not being asked to pay damages.
Court documents accuse the electrical utility of failing to maintain the century-old dam and of "failing to properly warn Mr. Angel… that the dam was going to fail, breach or collapse." The court filing states NPPD failed to conduct inspections "despite knowing that such failure to inspect (and) test constituted a reckless disregard for the public's health and safety."
In an interview conducted last summer, before the lawsuit, Kenny Angel's brother Scott told NET News he felt NPPD "had that obligation" to better warn the public in advance of the failure of Spencer Dam.
"It was their dam, and they were in control of the maintenance on that dam and the maintenance on the levy, and they were in control of notifying people down river in the event that there was a possibility of a breach," Scott Angel said. "It's too little, too late now."
Kenny's wife Linda asked the court to consider $5 Million in damages for both the loss of her husband's life and, on behalf of his estate, the total loss of the structures and the land.
Only a few remnants of the destroyed buildings were recovered along the banks of the Niobrara River following the torrent of ice and water. The court filing notes, "these buildings, improvements and personal property are completely gone and have been replaced by water and sand." In fact, the surge of water following the dam's collapse altered the river's channel, which now flows directly over the site of the home and tavern.
A spokesperson for the power district said there would be no comment on the allegations.
In an April 2019 interview with ENR Midwest, a newsletter for the engineering industry, a spokesperson for NPPD noted Spencer Dam was never designed for flood control.
“It’s a run-of-the-river hydroelectric facility,” spokesperson Mark Becker said, “and not a flood control operation.” Spencer was one of three such fixtures operated at the time by NPPD.
He added the utility would be “gathering all of the information so we have a better understanding of what the situation was at the time.” No official report has been made public.
NPPD filed a motion to have the case dismissed.
Court records show the power district argues it is "immune from liability" and cannot be held responsible. Their attorneys argue state law gives government agencies like public power districts immunity from being sued when carrying out emergency management activities. While not specified in the document on file, they will likely argue the extreme weather which brought on the flooding and ice jams before the dam's collapse qualify as such an emergency response.
The power district will make the case to have the lawsuit thrown out at a hearing in Holt County District Court later this month.
Later this spring The Association of State Dam Safety Officials (ASDSO) is expected to release its investigation into the likely causes that contributed to the breach of Spencer Dam.
A team of specialists assembled by ASDSO will, according to a prepared statement, “compile information and lessons to be learned from the event with the goal of advancing the dam safety engineering profession.” The non-profit organization promotes research and the safety of dams.
The investigation was requested by the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources, the regulating authority over Spencer Dam. NDNR is named as a party in the lawsuit but not a defendant responsible for damages.