The federal government is sending Nebraska $50 million to help remove what’s left of the Spencer Dam after its deadly failure during the flood of spring 2019.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency initially announced Friday the $50 million would help the hydroelectric dam’s owner, Nebraska Public Power District, “restore the facilities back to pre-disaster design, capacity and function.”
But that was wrong, NPPD spokesman Mark Becker said. And he wanted to be clear: “FEMA knows we were never going to rebuild.”
Instead, he said, FEMA will send the $50 million to the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency to help the utility pay for decommissioning the northeast Nebraska dam — tearing it out and restoring the river banks. A FEMA spokeswoman confirmed later Friday the funding could be spent on demolition.
Restoring the 90-year-old dam would cost far more than it’s worth, Becker said. Spencer Dam generated just three megawatts of electricity; by comparison, NPPD's coal-fired Gerald Gentleman Station near Sutherland generates nearly 1,400 megawatts.
And the utility was in the process of selling the dam — and its water rights — to a group of Natural Resources Districts when it collapsed in March 2019 under the pressure of the Niobrara River, which had swollen with floodwater and broken ice.
The resulting wall of water swept away part of the U.S. 281 bridge, a riverside bar and the home of 71-year-old Kenny Angel.
His body was never recovered, and, in June 2019, a judge declared him dead.
His widow, Linda Angel, sued NPPD and the Department of Natural Resources in October 2019, alleging their negligence led to his death. Specifically, her lawsuit said they failed to properly manage, operate, inspect or test the dam, prevent its collapse or warn Angel about the danger it could fail.
That lawsuit is proceeding, and a pretrial conference is scheduled for January 2022, according to court records.
Becker did not have a cost estimate for decommissioning the dam, and he couldn’t say when the work would begin or how long it would last.
“We didn’t know how much money we were even going to get,” he said. “Once we see some funds, we’ll start doing the scheduling.”
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