Open Access: Acting Chairman Cheryl LaFleur at Oroville Dam (Recorded March 1, 2017)


Craig Cano: Welcome to Open Access, the podcast
series of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC. I’m Craig Cano, your host. Our goal here is to have a conversation about
FERC, what it does, and how that can affect you. FERC can get very legal and very technical,
so we will strive to keep it simple. FERC is an independent regulatory agency that
oversees the interstate transmission of electricity, natural gas and oil. FERC’s authority also includes review of
proposals to build interstate natural gas pipelines and liquefied natural gas terminals
and licensing of nonfederal hydropower projects. FERC protects the reliability of the high-voltage
interstate transmission system through mandatory reliability standards, and it monitors interstate
energy markets to ensure that everyone in those markets is playing by the rules. Mary O’Driscoll: I’m Mary O’Driscoll,
welcome to Open Access. Today we’re talking by phone with Acting
FERC Chairman Cheryl LaFleur, who is in Oroville, California, where damage occurred to the Oroville
Dam Service Spillway during spillway operations on February 7, 2017. Additionally, due to high inflows and reduced
service spillway capacity, the ungated emergency spillway saw overtopping flow beginning on
February 11, 2017, for the first time. Excessive erosion of the bedrock downstream
of the emergency spillway threatened the stability of the structure on February 12. The reservoir was immediately lowered using
the service spillway to prevent potential erosion of the emergency spillway’s foundation. Chairman, welcome to the podcast. Acting Chairman LaFleur: Thank you, Mary. O’Driscoll: Now many of our listeners won’t
understand why FERC is out at Oroville, or why FERC is involved with hydropower. Can you explain? LaFleur: As you know, FERC regulates more
than 1,700 hydropower dams around the country. The licensing of hydroelectricity was actually
FERC’s first authority when the Federal Power Commission was created in 1920. We issue licenses for the construction of
new projects; we do relicensing applications for the continuance of existing projects,
and we oversee all ongoing project operations, including dam safety. In addition to our Office of Energy Projects
in Washington, D.C., we have regional offices around the country of dam safety inspectors
who regularly inspect all of the dams we regulate. O’Driscoll: OK, so, who’s out there in
Oroville right now? LaFleur: Oh my goodness. I’ve said several times today there’s
so much activity here it’s like Richard Scarry’s big book of trucks and boats. So some of the main players, first of all,
the licensee, the California Department of Water Resources, is overseeing all the work,
and they are here in force, fortunately they have a major headquarters in Oroville, but
also like a trailer village has sprung up in two weeks of offices from people from around
the state and around the country. Secondly, our own wonderful employees of FERC
have been here since the beginning. We have folks here from Washington, D.C.,
and from several of FERC’s regional offices. They were here 24-7 at the time of the operation
of the emergency spillway, and they have remained on-site and will stay here throughout the
duration of the repairs this summer. Third, the California dam safety people are
here, from the state department, the Army Corps of Engineers is here lending their expertise,
the Butte County Sheriff’s Department has been wonderful, and all of the first responders
who’ve been very involved. And we have contractors from around the country
driving trucks and operating barges. So the No. 1 reason I wanted to do this podcast
was to say thank you, first and foremost to our own FERC employees, but really to all
the people who are working here on this situation. O’Driscoll: So, what’s going on out there
right now? LaFleur: Well, there’s two major things
that are happening right now. The first is that because they were able to
reduce Lake Oroville enough, they were able to turn off the service spillway, the one
that is most highly damaged, and really get a good look at it when there was no water
coming down. And so that is being inspected and closely
looked at by the experts. And, photographs don’t do justice to how
enormous the crater is that the water carved. It’s a 200-foot deep canyon in the side
of the hill next to the service spillway. The geologists say it’s about 1.7 million
cubic yards of rock, down to bedrock, and debris that was eaten out by the water. And so we’re getting a look at that to figure
out how to repair it or replace it. The second big piece of work that’s involving
most of the people here is to remove as much of the rock and debris as we can from the
river that flows down from the powerhouse. We have trucks and barges all over the place. It’s estimated that they’re filling one
big truck every 90 seconds, if they removed it all, it’s going to take 55 million truckloads
of rock and debris that came down the mountain, to be somehow stored somewhere else and removed. They need to do that so they can get the powerhouse
operating, because right now the water isn’t flowing enough to run the powerhouse. And they need to operate the powerhouse to
start making sure the lake levels are maintained at a safe level. It will also be very good for the fish and
for the condition of the river to get that river flowing again. O’Driscoll: The dam itself is not the issue
right now, correct? LaFleur: No. The dam is in very good shape. I flew right over it this afternoon. Actually, it’s fascinating. It’s the highest dam in the United States,
more than 700 feet high, it’s a very, thick and deep earthen dam, made of packed dirt
and earth, and it is intact and in very good shape. The damage was to the spillway, which is quite
a ways to the side of the dam, and which is where the water that doesn’t go through
the powerhouse comes down. O’Driscoll: FERC recently asked the California
Department of Water Resources to convene a Board of Consultants. What is that, and what’s the status? LaFleur: A board of consultants is basically
a group of outside experts, not directly involved, who are brought in because of their expertise
to look at the situation and help determine what happened and how best to respond. And the Department of Water Resources has
brought in five highly qualified engineers to be on the board and they’re having their
first meeting tomorrow [March 2, 2017]. O’Driscoll: What else will the Commission
be doing as the work continues out in Oroville? LaFleur: Well, we will be working here on
site to oversee the work that’s going on, as well as in Washington, D.C., to review
proposals that may come before us related to that. Basically, going forward there will be four
major workstreams. The first, which is going on right now, is
to oversee the immediate actions that are happening to protect public safety. We’ve had a little bit of a respite from
the rain this week, but the record snow melt in the ranges around here, is due to start
next month and we have to make sure that the water levels are maintained safely and public
safety is restored during that period. Secondly, and this has already started, we
need to make sure we understand exactly what happened, what went wrong, how it could have
been prevented so we can learn from it. Thirdly, they have to repair, or replace,
or restore, the spillways so they can get the dam ready to be operated during the rainy
season, which I understand could start in October. So that means an intense period of work to
do that. And finally, we need to make sure that lessons
learned, whether they are lessons about spillway construction, evacuation, or anything else,
are carefully understood and applied, both here in Oroville and anywhere else at any
of the dams we regulate or other dams around the country where they may be relevant. O’Driscoll: OK, well thank you, Chairman,
thank you so much for joining us today. LaFleur: Well thank you for having me. As you can see, being out here, it’s just
been an amazing opportunity. Although it’s something you never want to
happen, it certainly gets the adrenaline flowing to see how important the work that folks at
FERC and the folks who work in this industry and all parts of it, how important their work
is. So thank you again to everyone who is doing
that. O’Driscoll: If you want more information
on the Oroville situation, go to the FERC website, www.ferc.gov. You’ll see the link for the Oroville project
under the “Of Current Interest” listing on the left side of our main webpage. Craig Cano: Thank you for listening to Open
Access, the podcast series of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Unless otherwise noted, the views expressed
on these podcasts are personal views and do not necessarily
express the views of individual Commissioners or of the Commission as a whole. This podcast is a production of the Federal
Energy Regulatory Commission Office of External Affairs, Leonard Tao, Director. We’ll be updating our posts when we’ve
got news, so be sure to check out our website, www.ferc.gov, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter,
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