Oroville Sues State Over Dam Crisis

The City of Oroville is suing the California Department of Water Resources over a massive spill at the Oroville Dam that forced 188,000 people to flee their homes last year.

Lawyers for the city filed the suit in Butte County Superior Court Wednesday. They’re alleging decades of mismanagement, lax safety measures, and a culture of corruption that includes racism, sexism, and cronyism.

“This was no natural disaster. This was 20 years of putting profits in the pockets and the hell with safety," said Joe Cotchett, an attorney with Cotchett, Pitre and McCarthy.

Among the claims:

  • Serious safety warnings went ignored for years by the DWR. Oroville residents remain at risk today because those safety issues still haven’t been properly addressed. 
  • A deaf person was hired to work on 2013 repairs that involved dragging chains along the spillway to listen for hollow sounds indicating voids under the concrete.
  • An employee of the DWR left a noose in a break room to intimidate an African-American employee. DWR managers allowed it to hang there for months until the African-American employee removed it. That same employee was called racial epithets and subjected to references about picking cotton.
  • The agency hired only two African-Americans over a 20-year period.
  • Sexual harassment of women and anti-LGBT statements were commonplace at DWR. Women who complained about sexual advances were physically threatened outside of work.
  • Employees routinely stole items from the agency for their own person use.
  • A piece of concrete that may have been used as evidence of shoddy repair work on the dam was removed by DWR employees before it could be examined by experts.

The City is seeking unspecified damages. It says it has suffered millions in lost revenue and destruction. It predicts dozens of lawsuits will follow on behalf of other local governments, farmers, and residents.

A recently-released independent investigation by dam experts blamed the catastrophe on “long-term and systemic failures" by dam managers and regulators.

Read more at KCRA, NBC and SF Gate.