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Hope Mills Lake drained because of sinkhole

A sinkhole that was allowing water to flow uncontrolled beneath the Hope Mills Lake dam prompted authorities to drain the lake and close a bridge on the dam Thursday.

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HOPE MILLS, N.C. — A sinkhole that was allowing water to flow uncontrolled beneath the Hope Mills Lake dam prompted authorities to drain the lake and close a bridge on the dam Thursday.

Engineers were inspecting the integrity of the two-year-old dam, which has had leaks in the past, according to Cumberland County authorities. Authorities said Lakeview Road might be reopened later Thursday.

"This is a sad day for Hope Mills," town manager Randy Beeman said. "This is the fabric, the center-point of the social mecca, if you will, of the town of Hope Mills."

A system or structural failure around the drainage system allowed the sinkhole to develop, officials said. It was unclear if natural or human-made factors, or a combination of them, led to the failure.

Efforts to capture an alligator spotted in the lake had nothing to do with the situation, Beeman said. The alligator was spotted swimming a creek downstream before the lake was emptied.

The dam had been under close monitoring because of the potential for a breach to cause damage, he said. On Wednesday, they noticed silt in water coming out of a relief jet, which normally carries clear water. They started gradually releasing water, and by early Thursday, the rate of water loss had increased – which meant the lake was draining itself. By 6 a.m., the lake was dry.

Then, engineers found a sinkhole that had formed underneath the dam, allowing water to escape from the lake uncontrolled.

Because engineers had started a gradual, controlled release of water, though, a large rush of water through the sinkhole was avoided, Beeman said. So far, reports of damage downstream were light.

But the lake will no longer be the centerpiece of the town's planned Fourth of July festivities, Beeman said. Instead, the festivities will be held in the municipal park.

"It's a disaster," said Barbra Martin, who's lived in Hope Mills since 1968. "The lake is our daily income for all the visitors to come."

The town has been grappling with problems with this dam and an older dam at the lake since 2003.

"This seems to be a repeat of history," Beeman said.

In 2003, an older, earthen dam burst, and a new, $9.8-million concrete dam wasn't finished and the lake filled again until August 2008, when the remnants of Tropical Storm Fay dumped heavy rain. The lake had to drained again in November 2008 to repair small leaks to the dam. At the time, town officials said small leaks are common in new concrete dams.

On Thursday, Town Councilman Tonzi Collins expressed frustration with the construction.

"To see the workmanship that's been done, in my opinion, to see this go in this short period – there is no reason for this," Collins said.

So far, the town has invested about $14 million in building and maintaining the newer dam. It is still paying off a $4 million loan.

Collins said he has suggested putting payments to the dam builders on hold and filing a lawsuit against them. Beeman, though, said that the town will keep its financial obligations and was still reviewing its legal options.

"It's sad," Collins said. "The taxpayers are paying for every bit of this. It's coming out of their pockets."

The community group Friends of Hope Mills Lake recently spent $30,000 to clean up the lake, organizer Mike Mitchell said.

The town did not have insurance for the dam, because the state of North Carolina does not allow towns to insure dams, Beeman said.

The dam will have to undergo extensive inspection before town leaders start to decide the next step – whether the dam can be repaired, if it needs to be replaced or what the town's legal options are, he said.

"Hopefully, it can be patched or fixed, and we can go on with the life," Mitchell said.


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