Lawsuit claims corruption, racism, sexual harassment contributed to Oroville Dam crisis

Workers were patching Oroville Dam’s weathered concrete spillway, nearly four years before a massive crater would tear it open.

Michael Hopkins, an employee at the Department of Water Resources, alleges he saw something he would never forget.

A legally deaf woman was assigned to drive a truck down the spillway and listen for hollow sounds in the concrete as her colleagues performed what’s known as “chain drag testing,” Hopkins wrote in a declaration filed last week in Sacramento Superior Court.

“This isn’t going to work,” the woman told her supervisor, who brushed off her concerns and told her to get back to work, Hopkins wrote.

Hopkins’ allegation isn’t the only alarming charge found in a lawsuit stemming from the crisis at the nation’s tallest dam, which began two years ago Thursday when a large crater formed in the spillway, eventually leading to the evacuation of 188,000 people.

The suit before Sacramento Superior Court Judge James McFetridge has ballooned to include allegations that dam officials stole equipment, cooked financial books to conceal wrongdoing, destroyed evidence and fostered a toxic culture of sexual and racial harassment that included slurs and nooses hung where a black worker would find them.

State attorneys deny those allegations in court documents, calling them “salacious” and irrelevant to the allegations at the heart of the suit: whether Department of Water Resources’ negligence caused the Oroville Dam’s spillway to fail. The suit was filed by lawyers representing the city of Oroville and dozens of farmers, businesses and others seeking hundreds of millions in damages.

“Further, DWR vigorously disputes these allegations, which were apparently included in the respective complaints simply to try to embarrass DWR and prejudice the public against them,” wrote Donald Carlson, a San Francisco attorney the California Attorney General’s Office hired to defend the case.

Judge McFetridge will hold a hearing next week in response to Carlson’s motion to toss the allegations.

Joseph Cotchett, a Burlingame attorney representing the plaintiffs, said the allegations are relevant because they show DWR fostered a culture in which dam workers were dangerously distracted from the vital work they were supposed to perform.

Included in Cotchett’s filings is a nearly $1 million settlement DWR signed in 2012 with a former employee, Chris Thomas, who sued the state alleging he was passed up for promotions because he is black. His 2010 suit alleged he suffered years of racial slurs, found a doll hanging from his locker, and that his supervisors failed to take down a noose that hung for months in a meeting room.

“They’re saying, ‘The fact we hung a noose in a workman’s ... locker with the words, ‘N------ should only pick cotton’ that’s immaterial to the failure of the dam,’” Cotchett said in a phone interview Wednesday with The Sacramento Bee. “But could you imagine if your office had that kind of language? What kind of (safety) environment would you have?”

Cotchett’s filings include allegations that female workers at DWR’s Oroville division suffered similarly derogatory treatment. The case includes declarations from UC Davis sociology professor Kimberlee Shauman and California State University, Sacramento, management professor Amy Mickel, who argued a toxic workplace culture could have factored into the spillway failure.

“It is my professional opinion that such conduct would more likely than not affect the ability of employees to effectively do their jobs including jobs related to the safety and maintenance of Oroville Dam,” Mickel wrote.

Hopkins, the worker who alleged he saw a deaf woman performing sound tests on the spillway, said in his declaration that his supervisors at one point tried to pressure him into lying that Thomas, the black DWR employee, had threatened to beat him up. He said he refused.

He claims he was transferred as a result. He eventually was transferred back to Oroville and in 2013 was on the team that was conducting repairs to the spillway in advance of a federal inspection.

Hopkins alleges he and another employee noticed a wide array of problems as they did hasty repairs, such as superfluous patches in too-thin concrete, cracks and clogged drains. Investigators have since pointed out that those kind of maintenance problems may have played a role in the spillway’s failure.

“When the crew questioned the effectiveness of the work we were doing, (our supervisor) instructed us ‘to make it look pretty’ and get back to work,” Hopkins wrote in his declaration.

Another employee, Trevor Hunter, worked on the same crew that year and alleged in a separate declaration that concerns raised about the hasty concrete patches and repairs were met with: “Shut up and get back to work.”

Hopkins said it was an ongoing problem when employees pointed out safety issues. He said he was regularly told to “keep (his) mouth shut.”

“I often referred to the DWR as the ‘Water Mafia’ because they operated more like a corrupt mafia than a state department,” Hopkins wrote.

The crater formed in Oroville’s spillway in 2017 during heavy storms. To try to keep it from expanding, DWR’s dam operators let the lake rise to the point where water flowed over the adjacent emergency spillway for the first time since the dam was completed in 1968.

The earthen hillside below the emergency spillway started to wash away. Fearing the concrete spillway would crumble and release a “wall of water,” officials ordered a frantic evacuation of 188,000 Sacramento Valley residents.

Last year, an independent forensic team the state hired to come up with causes of the spillway failures heavily criticized California officials, saying DWR did a poor job of designing, building and maintaining the structure and neglected safety while focusing on the “water delivery needs” of the districts that store water in Oroville.

The forensic team described the festering problems at Oroville as a “long-term systemic failure.”

In response, DWR revamped its dam safety programs and ordered 93 dams it oversees to conduct thorough inspections and other ongoing safety upgrades.

“As was the primary focus during the February 2017 Oroville incident, DWR remains committed to public safety. DWR continues to build industry-leading programs and operational protocols to further ensure the safety of our facilities, employees, visitors and nearby communities,” DWR spokeswoman Erin Mellon said Thursday in an emailed statement.

A trial date for the lawsuit has been set for June 2020.

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Ryan Sabalow covers environment, general news and enterprise and investigative stories for McClatchy’s Western newspapers. Before joining The Bee in 2015, he was a reporter at The Auburn Journal, The Redding Record Searchlight and The Indianapolis Star.