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‘Threat to life’ still priority in Whaley Bridge dam drama, residents warned

Some remain in their properties as efforts continue to prevent the structure from being breached.

Workers continue to shore up the Toddbrook Reservoir dam (Danny Lawson/PA)
Workers continue to shore up the Toddbrook Reservoir dam (Danny Lawson/PA)

A minority of people refusing to leave their homes despite fears of a damaged dam bursting are “taking their lives into their own hands”, a police chief has warned.

Twenty residents, including a “small number” who were initially evacuated but have since returned to their homes, remain in 16 properties in the evacuation zone in the Derbyshire town of Whaley Bridge despite warnings of catastrophic consequences if the the dam at Toddbrook Reservoir collapses.

Deputy Chief Constable Rachel Swann said: “We will repeatedly visit these people to remind them of the risks they are posing to themselves and emergency responders, however there is no specific legislation under which we can force these people to leave.”

The number had been higher earlier on Monday before Derbyshire’s police and crime commissioner, Hardyal Dhindsa, told a public meeting the priority was the “threat to life”.

Speaking to up to 100 people packed into Taxal and Fernilee Primary School, he said: “It’s a big disruption for you all and I understand that, the emergency authorities understand that and we want to get back to normality as quickly as possible, but please bear with us because the number one priority is life and threat to life.

“We don’t want anyone to be devastated. We want to make sure we protect the properties of everybody. That is going to be difficult when there is an evacuation.

“There is a minority number of people not wanting to leave their properties and they are taking their lives into their own hands.”

Derbyshire Police said the water level at the reservoir has been reduced by six metres, while the dam wall has been packed with 530 tonnes of aggregate, which is being cemented into place to reinforce the spillway.

“Once a level has been reached – and is able to be maintained – engineers will view the damage to the wall and a decision will be made regarding when it is safe for evacuated residents and businesses to return to Whaley Bridge,” the force said.

An RAF Chinook helicopter is expected to be used again to move sandbags in a bid to maximise the dam’s integrity, while the Environment Agency is monitoring the flow of water into the River Goyt.

Addressing the meeting on Monday, Labour MP for High Peak, Ruth George, said authorities hope inspections can take place on Tuesday afternoon or evening as water continues to be drained from the reservoir.

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Jeremy Corbyn with local MP Ruth George at Toddbrook Reservoir (Danny Lawson/PA)

She said: “I think they have dropped it about four metres now, which is really good to see, but they want it to go down another four metres so it is below the level of where the hole in the front of the dam is so that they know it is safe, and then they can get the engineers properly looking at it and say ‘right, is the whole structure safe?’.

“They are aiming, if all goes well and if we don’t get any rain, that some time tomorrow afternoon or evening that they might get to that level that they can inspect and then a decision will be made.”

Mr Dhindsa added: “Obviously there will be some sort of review into what happened, whether it could have been averted, but that is for later until we secure the site and the water level is low enough.”

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn attended the meeting and also viewed the repair work at the reservoir.

He said: “Incredible response by the community, the volunteers and, I think, really in co-ordination between the Environment Agency, the Canals and Rivers Trust, the county council, local authorities, police, RAF, everybody… really efficient.

“What you see is this incredible spirit around working so well together.

“I went out to talk to the construction workers who are repairing the dam.

“Well you have to just admire the skill of dropping a lot of aggregate in pinpoint accuracy and then backfilling with concrete and further aggregate which they are doing now.

“Impressive, but obviously the water levels have got to go down.

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(PA Graphics)

“That’s happening and hopefully people will be able to return to their homes, but of course there has to be then the question of long-term repair to the dam and the safety of it in the future.”

Asked if he thought an inquiry should take place, he replied: “Yes, there has to be an inquiry.

“An inquiry to make sure all the co-ordination worked effectively and everything I have seen shows it did, but there are always lessons to be learned.”

More than 1,500 people have been evacuated from the town since Thursday following heavy rain.

Fire chiefs have said specialist engineers have monitored the dam wall 24 hours a day with lasers and are reassured by their assessment, with a seven-day estimate for how long people would be out of their homes a “worst-case scenario”.

On Monday, Colin Winterbottom, station manager at Derbyshire Fire and Rescue Service, said “around 30-40%” of the water at Toddbrook Reservoir had been removed over the past five days, adding that another day of work will “probably see the dam down to a safe level”.

PA

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