Proposed bill to make low head dams in PA without proper warning signs a criminal offense

HARRISBURG -- A proposed bill is aiming to make penalties tougher for low-head dams without proper warning signs.

The legislation, proposed by State Representative Keith Gillespie of York County would make failing to have those warnings a criminal offense.

In the newly proposed bill he wants to make what is currently a civil penalty for not having visible signage warning people of danger ahead, into a criminal offense.

Here’s where it gets tricky — almost 2,000 Pennsylvania dams can show the dangerous characteristics of low ­head dams at times, depending on the flow.

Gillespie says the bill will essentially “sweep” them in, which would require them to also be marked appropriately.

In South Central Pennsylvania,  accidents and rescues at low head dams have gone up in recent years,

Officials say reported incidents have come from the following locations: Shady Nook Dam in Dover Township, York County; Swatara Creek near Jonestown, Lebanon County; Myers Mill Dam in Manchester Township, York county; Richland Road Dam on Codorus Creek, York County.

According to Pennsylvania’s Fish and Boat Commission, nearly 30 people have died at the Dock Street Dam in Harrisburg since 1935.

In 2018, a boat carrying a  family and their dog capsized at the dam.

3-year-old Madelyn Binkley and her mother, 25-year-old Mary Bredbenner were killed.

The driver of the boat, Cody Binkley, was found to be under the influence of marijuana and has been charged in the deaths.

That incident, prompted the City of Harrisburg to install buoys downstream from the Dock Street Dam almost two months ago.

While there is no way of telling if warning signs would have prevented those deaths, representative Gillespie believes there needs to be harder penalties to save more lives.

"I’d like to have flashing neon signs if at all possible," said Gillespie. “This is going to give them an opportunity to say wait a second, something is going on up here somebody is taking the time to put up a warning sign out here or a float of whatever nature, we need to turn around and go another way," he added.

However, some boaters think otherwise.

"No warning sign will stop people from going over a dam if they are reckless," said John Downs.

Gillespie says The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission (PFBC) is responsible for ensuring low-head dams are properly marked both upstream and downstream with signage and buoys, however the dams themselves may be owned and/or operated by municipalities or individuals.

He says under House Bill 1003, The owners themselves would be cited for failure to mark the dams.

“Well it gets a little scary when you talk about maybe throwing the mayor or the city council in jail," he added.

FOX43 reached out to Mayor Eric Papenfuse for comment regarding the proposed bill.

In a statement he wrote: "The City Of Harrisburg is doing all we can to make the Dock Street Dam as safe as possible. We don’t need the threat of criminal penalties to do the right thing." - Mayor Eric Papenfuse

A vote on the bill is expected to make it to the house floor in the next two weeks.

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