I-Team: Woodlake sticking to court order for now

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Charlie Jones is a Woodlake resident.

VASS TOWNSHIP, North Carolina

UPDATE: Plans submitted to NC Environmental Quality.

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The owners of the maligned Woodlake Dam are so far following court orders, even if they're being shy about it.

The ABC11 I-Team, which uncovered a history of negligence and lack of enforcement leading to the dam's demise, returned to Moore County on Wednesday to validate the dam's owners' adherence to a judge's order signed on March 15.

"I don't believe in the Easter Bunny and I don't believe in Santa Claus anymore as much as I'd like," resident Charlie Jones quipped to ABC11. "The reality of life is [Woodlake]'s track record is not particularly encouraging.

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According to court documents, Woodlake is required to build a temporary breach in the dam, thereby allowing a constant flow of water in the case of a major flooding event, while also leaving a solid foundation to fully rebuild the dam in the future.

Under the terms, Watson - and Woodlake's other primary owner, Illya Steiner of Hamburg, Germany - has until April 10 (25 days from March 15 to share with the NC Department of Environmental Quality firm engineering plans to build a temporary breach in the dam. Officials concede this would not permanently fix the dam, but it does negate any danger should there be another major rain event in the near future. Construction on those must begin within 60 days, and completed within 105 days - just in time for hurricane season.

"There has been some activity out there and that gate (by the dam) is not open ever unless there's somebody doing something over there," Jones explained.

Also as part of the court order, Woodlake must submit weekly updates to state officials with documented progress. An email to the Department of Environmental Quality obtained by the I-Team, dated April 4, says "Allied surveying is planning on starting the site survey tomorrow (Wednesday, 4/5/2017). The area around the spillway will be surveyed first. Preliminary analysis of the hydrology and hydraulics for the project and layout for the breach design is in progress."

A lawyer for the Attorney General's office told the ABC11 I-Team the new order, which was negotiated by the state with Watson, is "aggressive but reasonable." The attorney also promised the state would report any violation immediately to the judge, and penalties would include time in jail.

"Our priority has always been the safety of the communities living downstream," DEQ spokeswoman Bridget Munger told the ABC11 I-Team last month. "I can absolutely say with certainty that we will be watching very closely. We will be monitoring the situation. We have boots on the ground, people in the Fayetteville region who routinely do inspections who will be out there checking."

Julie Watson refused to speak to ABC11 on camera but vowed to welcome us to Woodlake in the future (we've never met her despite several previous calls and visits before). She told the court that Steiner, her business partner and financier, visited North Carolina last fall, and is the one responsible for sending the money needed to pay for dam repairs.

Thanks to the ABC11 I-Team, ABC11 Eyewitness News has been the only station following the saga surrounding the Woodlake Dam since Hurricane Matthew. The storm exposed the dangers of years of neglect when crews found a ruptured spillway, forcing the evacuation of hundreds of residents. The National Guard was called in to plug the leak with sandbags.

An ABC11 I-Team investigation revealed a history of negligence on the part of the past and current owners - German investors Ingolf Boex and Illya Steiner, plus Julie Watson - and a failure on the part of the DEQ to enforce the many DSOs and notices delivered over the past decade.

As the I-Team also reported, the risk of impending breach forced the DEQ and FEMA to bring in pumps to drain the lake and reduce pressure on the failing dam. The result has been the disappearance of Woodlake, which was a desired spot for waterfront properties. The lake was once home to fish, frogs, flora, fauna and many species of birds.

RELATED: WOODLAKE DAM PROBLEMS MEAN DRY, MUDDY HOME FOR SWANS

The Woodlake owner and managers have ignored repeated requests for comment.

On the same day our I-Team's report aired, Woodlake hired public relations firm Apco Worldwide to represent them. In a statement emailed to ABC11 on October 28, spokeswoman Devyn McDonald wrote:

"The safety of Woodlake Country Club residents, members, guests and our surrounding neighbors is our top priority...The interim remedy is intended to rapidly improve the protectiveness of the dam until a final remedy is designed, permitted, and implemented. The final remedy process will require ongoing collaboration with the state regulators until a final solution is in place. We want to emphasize that throughout this process the protection of human safety and the environment are our top priorities."

The Attorney General's Office finally filed a court injunction Woodlake after Steiner and Watson ignored a state-sanctioned Dam Safety Order after the hurricane. The DSO, issued on November 17, mandated that Woodlake must have had its engineers begin work on a temporary breach of the dam begin by December 8 and be completed by December 31, 2016. Additionally, the DSO gave the dam owners 91 days from the order's issue for engineers to submit complete plans for the repair of the dam.

According to the DSO, had the conditions not been met, the owners would face fines of up to $500 a day.

A spokesperson for the NC Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) told ABC11 that Woodlake was given five days from December 8 to provide a written response to the DEQ with an update on their plans and work.

Nothing ever happened.

Geosyntec, an international firm with field offices in Raleigh, was originally hired by Steiner to work closely with state officials to fix the maligned dam that nearly failed during Hurricane Matthew. The heroic efforts of the National Guard to sandbag the dam and save hundreds of homes downstream was one of the lasting images from the historic storm.

The firm, however, cut ties with Woodlake earlier this month. Documents obtained by the ABC11 I-Team show Steiner owed Geosyntec more than $270,000. Internal memos shown to the I-Team revealed that even Geosyntec had yet to hear from Steiner or Watson.

The Woodlake development, first built in the 1970s, has roughly 700 homes, two golf courses (only one functional), the dam (broken) and lake (drained). Property owners have been livid with the lack of communication from Watson, and the development's reluctance and/or willful ignorance to fix the dam.

"For anyone living on a lake or contemplating living on a lake - you can wind up in the same situation," David Watterson, a Woodlake resident and co-chair of the Restore Woodlake Committee, lamented to ABC11. "It can happen to anybody, especially if dams are privately owned."

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