Colombia’s prosecution investigating EPM over Ituango dam emergency

Colombia’s chief prosecutor said Thursday that he is investigating possible corruption at EPM after the public utilities company admitted that the country’s largest dam could break.

The $4 billion Hidroituango dam project was supposed to be inaugurated in November, but was abandoned by Medellin’s public services company on Wednesday amid fears the dam could collapse.

Local authorities are struggling to help thousands of locals who were forced to evacuate communities that live close to the Cauca river.

In brief

  • Colombia’s disaster management agency said that riverside communities in 16 municipalities were ordered to evacuate immediately.
  • The premature flooding of the dam’s reservoir possibly flooded mass graves in which, according to locals, hundreds of missing persons from the nearby towns could be buried.
  • EPM said that workers have returned to the dam in an attempt to recover the project and prevent the dam’s possible collapse.
  • President Juan Manuel Santos stressed that EPM, Antioquia Governor Luis Perez and Medellin Mayor Federico Gutierrez are ultimately responsible for the project.

Criminal investigations underway

According to Prosecutor General Nestor Humberto Martinez, his office is carrying out three different investigations against the company.

According to Martinez, the company could have illegally outsourced parts of the project. Two Brazilian companies involved in the construction of the dam have been embroiled in corruption investigations in their home country.

One of the investigations is based on complaints by locals who have opposed the project and sued the company for environmental damages.

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EPM bounces back

EPM CEO Jorge Londoño and Medellin Mayor Federico Gutierrez told press Thursday that the company was able to return to the site in an attempt to recover control over the project.

Londoño admitted that there continues to be a risk that the dam could break. Antioquia governor Luis Perez said that such an event could cause downstream villages to hit by waves of 26 meters or higher and could destroy the homes of 113 thousand people.

The CEO said that the company will try to recover the project by trying to regulate the water discharge to prevent a further deterioration and the possible breaking of the dam.

Londoño’s claims that dry weather had helped lower the pressure on the dam and that the water level downstream was lower than usual was contradicted by locals in the town of Nechi, where water levels rose and caused minor floods.

Evacuated towns short of aid

Colombia’s Inspector General, Fernando Carrillo, urged local authorities not to lift an evacuation order while the risk of a dam break exists.

The mayor of Taraza, a town of 30,000 inhabitants, urged national authorities to provide the necessary aid for people who have sought refuge in local shelter.

It is very difficult for municipalities to face this task alone. We have evacuated many inhabitants, but we are still more than 3000 people short. We call [for support] because we don’t have the means to house them in shelters. We don’t have tents, blankets, mattresses, and food, and people refuse to leave the area if they can’t find a place to stay.

Taraza Mayor Gladis Rebeca Miguel

National authorities have assumed responsibility of the management of the emergency after consistent efforts of local and regional authorities to downplay the unfolding crisis.

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