NPPD to pay $2.5 Million to Family of Dam Collapse Victim

Jan. 26, 2022, 8:49 p.m. ·

Collapsed Spencer Dam remains over channels of water with lawsuit document superimposed on lower left.
Spencer Dam. (Graphic by Nebraska Public Media News)

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The Nebraska Public Power District has agreed to pay $2.5 Million to the family of Kenny Angel. He died when Spencer Dam on the Niobrara River collapsed and flooded the family's property in March 2019. 

In their lawsuit filed in Holt County District Court, the family blamed his death on the negligence of NPPD and the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources in failing to maintain the 93-year-old structure and failing to warn the public about the risk the dam posed the community. 

Kenny Angel wearing jeans, light blue shirt, dark blue jacket and gray baseball cap standing on narrow bridge with vegetation surrounding it.
Kenny Angel, lost in the collapse of the Spencer Dam. (Photo courtesy Angel family)
Angel family property in 2009 with a building, grass, tents and RVs and vehicles. Aerial view with trees in background.
A 2009 photo shows the Angel family campground and Straw Bale Saloon. (Photo courtesy Angel family)
Aerial photo of the Angel property with land and channels of water with a red dot showing approximate location of where a saloon stood that isn't there.
After the dam collapse the Angel property was scrubbed clean. The red dot shows the approximate location of the Straw Bale Saloon.

Attorney Michael Coyle represented Angel's estate, his wife, and others in the family who shared ownership of the property. Coyle told Nebraska Public Media News, "we believe NPPD and the Nebraska DNR could have done more and taken steps to have avoided the failure of the dam in the first place."

The tragedy unfolded during the historic "bomb cyclone" that slammed northeast Nebraska with record flooding. Heavy rains inundated the frozen Niobrara, overwhelming the old dam. The property owned by the Angel family included a small tavern, a campground and concert stage, and the home where Kenny Angel was staying that night. After days of searching for Angel, he was presumed dead.

The floodwaters receded, showing the property scoured of all buildings and vegetation. The force of the flood rerouted the river channel over the Angel property.

It is unclear at the time if Angel had been warned the dam had been breached and was at risk of total failure.

Dating back to the 1970s, state inspectors listed Spencer Dam as a "significant hazard" but not life-threatening. A 2020 study completed by the Association of State Dam Safety Officials, an independent engineering group, found the state underestimated the risks of ice accumulating behind the dam.

"The settlement on behalf of the angel family is an important step towards healing from a real tragedy for this family," Coyle said.

The NPPD board of directors approved the $2.5 million settlement at its January meeting. In a prepared statement, the utility said "the settlement is not an admission of liability" and approved "to avoid additional expense."  

The case was set to go to trial next month. The presiding District Court judge was advised the negotiated settlement ended NPPD's involvement in the lawsuit. 

There has been no settlement with the state of Nebraska over its role in the Spencer Dam disaster, and that case could still go to trial. 

In 2015, NPPD announced it would close the century-old hydroelectric dam, transferring ownership to the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources. Last year, NPPD received $50 Million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to remove the remaining structure and debris from the Niobrara River. The utility's spokesperson wrote in an email once state officials approve plans for the project, the utility will work with other government agencies to move forward with decommissioning the shattered hydroelectric plan.