Dam victims sue owners and state Plaintiffs contend that flood damage could have been prevented had the dams been properly maintained and classified.

Posted: August 05, 2004

Burlington County residents whose homes were flooded when dams burst under torrential rains last month have sued, claiming damage could have been prevented had the dams been properly maintained and classified.

The lawsuit, filed yesterday in state Superior Court in Mount Holly, asserts negligence by the dams' owners, the engineers they retained to inspect the dams, the state, and the municipalities of Evesham, Tabernacle, Medford and Medford Lakes, where the failed dams are concentrated.

"If the dams were built the way they should have been built, they should have been able to withstand the rain," said Edward Petkevis, a Roebling lawyer.

The complaint lists three plaintiffs from Lumberton and Vincentown, but Petkevis said at least a dozen residents had contacted him. He is asking that a judge grant the case class-action status, which would allow possibly hundreds of homeowners to join the effort to recoup damages.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified compensation for damaged property, loss of property use, and any drop in property value.

Almost 800 people had to evacuate their homes after 19 dams burst July 12 and 13, unleashing the water and causing more than $50 million in damage to homes and infrastructure in Burlington County. An additional 28 dams were damaged.

Many of those dams had been flagged by the state for repairs or updates, but had not been fixed.

State dam-safety standards indicate that many of the dams, if up to code, should have withstood the more than 13 inches of rain that fell in 12 hours.

State officials said getting owners to address often costly problems quickly had been difficult because many were individuals, nonprofit groups or homeowners' associations with limited money.

Although most of the dams are privately owned, Petkevis argued that municipalities that had an easement on a dam - for a road, for example - shared responsibility.

Township Manager Al Feit said Medford did not have any easements on any of the failed dams. "We disagree with [the lawsuit], and we disagree with some of the conclusions," he said.

Rich Knight, borough manager for Medford Lakes, said he had not seen the lawsuit, and referred questions to the borough solicitor, who did not return a call. The borough shares responsibility for the dams at Upper and Lower Aetna Lakes, both of which had been cited as in need of greater spillway capacity to handle overflow.

The state, by law, cannot be held liable for any enforcement, regulation or inspection issues preceding a dam's failure. But the state is charged with classifying a dam's hazard level, which determines the standards to which it should be built.

Petkevis said the state had erred in its classification.

Many of the dams that failed were listed as significant-hazard dams, meaning a breach could cause significant property damage.

Petkevis argued that they should have been classified as high-hazard dams, meaning a breach would probably result in loss of life. Those dams are built to withstand much heavier rains, and are more heavily regulated by the state.

"There was a town down there," said Petkevis, referring to Lumberton, which was hardest hit by the flooding. "This wasn't a rural agricultural area with only isolated homes."

Peter Boger, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, which oversees dam safety, referred questions to the Attorney General's Office. A spokesman there said his department had not received the lawsuit and could not comment.

Several owners, including officials at YMCA Camp Ockanickon in Medford, the Girl Scouts of Camden County's Camp Inawendiwin in Tabernacle, and the Medford Lakes Colony Club, have vowed to rebuild their dams and restore the recreational lakes behind them with the help of low-interest state loans. The suit seeks to bar any new construction until downstream homeowners are assured dams are properly classified and designed.

Contact staff writer Jennifer Moroz at 856-779-3810 or jmoroz@phillynews.com.

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