Methods for Assessing Inequitable Social Impacts of Dam Failures on Marginalized Communities

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Horne, Ciara, Systems Engineering - School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Goodall, Jonathan, EN-CEE, University of Virginia

The rate of dam failures in the U.S. is alarming due to climate change and lack of regulation. Civil engineers rarely quantify the impact of dam failures, and when they do, it is limited to measuring loss of life and property. Although these are significant indicators of a dam failure’s impact, indicators involving demographic disparities have not been explored. Environmental justice literature considers social disparities that result from dam construction. However, there is no mention of the harm dam failures in particular can pose on socially marginalized communities. As the risk of dam failures increases due to changing climate patterns, there needs to be preventive urgency in identifying methods that will regard race and class when assessing diverse forms of social impact. This dissertation consisted of three studies that introduce innovative approaches to assess the impact of dam failures on racially and/or economically marginalized populations. The first study presents a method that identifies inequity within disaster aid after a severe rainfall and dam failure event and uses Columbia, South Carolina as a case study for demonstrating the method. The second study uses geospatial data and methods to determine the vulnerability of buildings in a marginalized Birmingham, AL community if a nearby dam failed under extreme rainfall conditions. Finally, the third study investigates how tailings dams and rural healthcare access in Southeast Missouri could together exacerbate lead exposure risks for young children. Across these three studies, this dissertation advances understanding of the social and policy implications of dams, underscoring how dam regulation could be improved to ensure the safety of marginalized communities.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Dam Failures, Social Equity, Marginalized Communities, Environmental Justice
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