Investigations

Coalburg Lake Dam’s failure would be ‘catastrophic,’ some say. The AG is suing for repairs

Shown here is the principal spillway of the Coalburg Lake Dam between Hubbard and Brookfield townships.
Shown here is the principal spillway of the Coalburg Lake Dam between Hubbard and Brookfield townships. Ohio Department of Natural Resources

The Coalburg Lake Dam is in sorry shape.

It can’t be expected to contain a flood resulting from the most severe weather events, according to a 2019 state inspection. Records show myriad maintenance issues have gone unaddressed for years by its owner.

It’s not even completely clear who’s actually responsible for it.

Now, Attorney General Dave Yost has sued, asking a Trumbull County judge to step in and force the dam’s owner, Coalburg Land Partners LLC, to either fix the dam, make changes to it or breach it.

If the dam were to fail, it could be “catastrophic” for the homes, farms, businesses and recreational areas downstream along Little Yankee Run, said Hubbard Township Trustee Frederick Hanley Jr. And if the dam were removed, it could turn the “picture-perfect” Coalburg Lake into “a giant mudhole.”

The dam, built in 1916 by Youngstown Sheet & Tube with limestone that’s still in “good condition,” supplies the area with a year-round water source, Hanley said. But the property has changed hands several times and over the years, and those numerous owners “just let the property go,” he said.

Owners missed repair deadlines, prosecutors say

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources called for several repairs and maintenance work to the dam after the inspection in 2019 and set several deadlines which Coalburg Land Partners missed or only partially completed.

ODNR found Coalburg Land Partners LLC in violation following that 2019 inspection, and required the trees and brush to be removed by June of that year. But by August 2020, the removal had only been partially completed, inspectors found. Though Coalburg Land Partners was also required to submit a schedule of repairs for the dam by the end of September 2020 — after being granted a 90-day extension — the company missed that deadline too.

Orders handed down by ODNR’s chief in October reset several of those compliance deadlines through Aug. 31 of this year, when the dam was supposed to have been reconstructed or permanently breached. In March of this year, Coalburg was able to show that most — but not all — of the trees had been removed from the downstream slope, the complaint states. But by the following October, much of the brush previously removed on that slope had regrown, according to the complaint.

Though Coalburg Land Partners submitted multiple drafts of an emergency plan for the dam this past spring, the state says it still hasn’t received the final plan.

Under those extended deadlines, the dam was supposed to be in compliance with all dam safety laws by today, Dec. 15, 2021.

“To date, [Coalburg Land Partners] has not submitted any schedule or plans pursuant to the chief’s order to repair, breach or modify the dam,” reads Yost’s complaint. “The dam has not been repaired, breached or modified.”

Read Attorney General Dave Yost’s full complaint below, which includes the dam’s 2019 inspection and other reports:

When the levee breaks

Coalburg Lake Dam is a Class I dam, meaning its sudden failure could “result in the probable loss of human life or the structural collapse of at least one resident or one commercial or industrial business,” reads Yost’s complaint.

Just north of the Coalburg dam along State Route 7, Kinsman Lake overflowed its dam during a heavy downpour in July 2019 which caused a road collapse that cut residents off from their homes, as WKBN reported, and washed out several other roads in the area.

Hanley said he worries about what’s downstream of Coalburg Lake: more than a dozen homes or farms; a separate dam; Chestnut Ridge Campground; the Interstate 80 and U.S. Route 62 interchange, just south of which are several businesses; and the city of Hubbard’s northern limits, across which the stream runs parallel before it reaches the sewage plant.

“If the dam breaches … if one of the side walls caved, it could be catastrophic downstream,” he said.

Owners taken to court

Coalburg Land Partners LLC has owned the 356 acres under and surrounding the lake and its dam since 2006, when it was sold for $2 million, according to Trumbull County Auditor records.

Hanley said he and others have tried to reach out to the dam’s owners about their concerns — but have gotten the “run-around” when dealing with the company’s attorneys.

Coalburg Land Partners is based out of Chagrin Falls, according to Yost’s complaint, but Mahoning Matters couldn’t find any contact information for that company. The address of the company’s statutory agent, 2112 East Ohio Service Corp., goes back to the Cleveland law firm Frantz Ward LLP.

When reached by phone last week, the person who answered told Mahoning Matters she was unaware of the dam or the name of that statutory agency. The person said she’d correspond with others in the firm, but Mahoning Matters never received a response to its inquiry about the injunction.

The Attorney General last week filed a preliminary and permanent injunction to force Coalburg Land Partners to bring the dam into compliance. Court records indicate the complaint has been mailed to the firm, but that it hasn’t been received.

If the injunction is granted, the dam’s owners would need to lower the lake’s water level by one foot per week, by either repairing the drain or installing siphons; monitor the dam weekly and during rain events and report concerns to ODNR; and remove the remaining trees and brush.

Since the lake drain controls are inoperable, the only way to drain Coalburg Lake would be to breach the dam, Hanley said — that means removing the dam’s earthen barrier to allow the stream to pass by.

In considering the dam’s future, Coalburg Land Partners must then plan to either repair the dam or to modify or permanently breach it. A schedule for repairs would become due by Jan. 8, 2022, and construction would need to be completed by June 7.

Dam repairs were tallied at $1.5 million in 2020, the Tribune Chronicle reported.

In 2016, the ballpark estimate for the lake’s total acreage was between $1 million and $7 million, Hanley said.

Local officials have tried to court other public or private entities as stewards — but none of those prospects panned out, he said.

Trumbull County MetroParks in 2019 considered turning the area into a park, and it seemed Coalburg Land Partners and trustees from Brookfield and Hubbard townships were all amenable, Hanley said. But neither Coalburg’s nor the county’s insurance underwriters would take on the dam’s liability, he said.

They couldn’t even get special state environmental funds for the project, despite the land’s former industrial owners.

“It becomes a liability once you take it over. If it fails, the contingent liability is astronomical,” Hanley said. “What we’re trying not to do is have them breach the dam and have it become a giant mudhole.”

This story was originally published December 15, 2021 2:45 AM.

Justin Dennis has been on the beat since 2011, covering crime, courts and public education. Dennis grew up in Poland and Salem and studied journalism and communications at Cleveland State University and University of Pittsburgh.
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