Death again stirs dock safety concerns at Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks

A recent electrocution has put attention on boat docks around Lake of the Ozarks. Seth Agnew, a master electrician, recently checked the electrical installations around James Markland’s boat dock ahead of the holiday weekend. The news was good: Agnew said Markland’s dock could be repaired with just a few new parts and didn’t need a complete rewiring.
A recent electrocution has put attention on boat docks around Lake of the Ozarks. Seth Agnew, a master electrician, recently checked the electrical installations around James Markland’s boat dock ahead of the holiday weekend. The news was good: Agnew said Markland’s dock could be repaired with just a few new parts and didn’t need a complete rewiring. deulitt@kcstar.com

A swimmer’s recent death after grabbing a “hot” ladder reminded people here of 2012.

Three people, including two children, died from electrocution that summer. Much was made back then of unsafe docks, shoddy wiring and shade tree electricians.

Three years later, not much has changed at Lake of the Ozarks, real electricians said this week.

“I’d say 90 percent of the docks I see would not pass code,” Seth Agnew, co-owner of Catalyst Electric, said as he drove a winding lake road to a dock job. “We see wiring strung from trees, no grounding. The other day, I saw wires run through a garden hose for conduit.”

Others see the same, a consequence they blame on a longtime culture of too little regulation at Missouri’s premier recreation lake and thousands of homeowners more interested in getting juice to the tiki bar than making sure the dock is safe.

That’s why none were surprised to hear of the June 21 electrocution of the young man who died while swimming with a friend in a cove near Osage Beach.

“I’m surprised it doesn’t happen more often,” Agnew said. “I know what’s out there. I see it every day.”

Ameren Missouri, the utility company that owns the lake and operates the Bagnell Dam hydroelectric project, disputes that assessment. Jeff Green, Ameren’s supervisor of shoreline management, said Wednesday that dock safety has improved greatly since 2012 because of required inspections.

“More and more docks are being made safe,” Green said. “But ultimately the responsibility rests with the homeowner. And if those electricians are seeing problems, they should be reporting those owners.”

Todd Bennett has been an electrician at the lake area for 20 years who sees about 600 docks a year. He says Ameren, which assumed ownership in 1997, is burying its head in the sand.

“They think they’re doing their part by getting local fire departments to do inspections, but those fire departments fight fires and work traffic accidents — they don’t have time to do dock inspections,” Bennett said. “I’ve seen people wait six months.

“Ameren needs to hire qualified, full-time inspectors. Even with that, it’ll take 10 years because there are 25,000 docks on this lake and most wouldn’t pass an inspection.”

The Gravois Fire Protection District includes 63 miles of shoreline, but it passed on doing dock inspections. Tight times, Chief Ed Hancock said.

“We’re trying to keep stations open and trucks running.”

Shade tree wiring

Old-timers recall a time at Lake of the Ozarks when anything went. The lake developed fast and vast in lots of jurisdictions — multiple cities and four counties. So many houses were going up at one time that land surveys, title searches and code inspections got skipped.

That’s how several hundred houses came to be built beyond property lines and on company land, causing a huge ruckus recently between homeowners and Ameren. The federal government had to step in when residents feared they would lose their homes.

That’s also how a lot of docks got wired by less-than-handymen. With no code enforcement, they didn’t properly ground the wiring or install a shutoff at the water’s edge. They used interior wiring and fixtures not meant for water. They skipped junction boxes. And sometimes wiring came through trees and wrapped around a dock’s metal frame without conduit.

For some, it was nothing more than extension cords.

To that mix, add time and varying water levels. Those docks bobbed up and down for years, rubbing wiring against metal. Boats are bigger now and make bigger waves.

“Electricity near water is a hostile environment,” said Hancock, the Gravois fire chief. “And you got people splashing around having fun.

“Some of these docks were wired 30, 40 years ago. Probably had one light bulb. Then come boat lifts and pumps and TVs and refrigerators. Same dock, same wiring. But until they trigger an inspection, they are grandfathered.”

Ameren took the right step with inspections, Hancock said. But those are only for new and rebuilt docks and when old docks are sold to new owners.

“The rest are still out there,” he said, “and there are a lot of them.”

Be aware, he cautioned.

Bennett, who helped investigate the 2012 accidents, understands that some people may struggle to afford improvements. But he also sees people with a $50,000 dock and an $80,000 boat who spend a thousand dollars every weekend on gas, food and drink.

“I told one of these guys the other day he needed to spend $900 to make his dock safe and he cringed,” Bennett said.

But even if someone springs for the money, what about their neighbor’s dock?

In a strip mall in Lake Ozark, Dave Hotz sells an invention he calls the Dock Lifeguard, an electronic device that, when submerged, detects live current in the water. An alarm then warns people to get out of the water.

Price: $850.

“We’ve sold almost 300 in two years,” Hotz said.

Phil Lawson, who lives in the Sunrise Beach area, bought one.

“I’ve got four kids who are in the water all the time, and this gives me a sense of comfort,” Lawson said of the device. “There’s a lot of live electricity in the water here, and it’s not just coming from old docks either.”

The Missouri Highway Patrol, which patrols the lake, is aware of the issue.

“But we have no enforcement over the docks,” spokesman Lt. Paul Reinsch said. “That’s Ameren. We just tell people to get their dock inspected and make sure it’s safe.”

Paging tradesmen

After the most recent victim died at Woods Hollow Cove, electricians’ phones started ringing. Just like three years ago.

Don Doyl of All Shores Electric rolled his pickup down a steep driveway Tuesday and stopped at the water’s edge in Sunrise Beach. He’d been called for an inspection.

“That doesn’t look good,” he said before even getting out of the truck.

Wiring from the house strung from trees — stapled actually — led overhead to the dock

“It should be buried,” Doyl said.

The homeowner also needed a device to shut off power when it detects voltage leaking into the water.

He took a moment to look at the dock next door.

“Look at that light fixture over there,” he said, smiling. “Isn’t that what you have in your closet?”

On another part of the lake, James Markland was getting ready for 25 or so family members and friends to show up for the Fourth of July weekend.

He called Agnew to check things out.

“Sure, I heard about what happened the other day,” Markland said. “So I’m taking no chances. Big holiday weekend, lots of kids, I need to make sure everything is safe.”

And it pretty much was. Agnew said Markland’s dock could be repaired with a few new parts rather than a complete rewiring.

That’s different than what he often sees. A lot of the tragedy over the years could have been avoided if people had hired licensed electricians to do the work in the first place, he said.

“But every Tom, Dick and Harry with wire cutters and a screwdriver thinks they know how to wire a dock.”

What to look for

Electricians say the most important things in dock safety are a GFCI (ground fault circuit interrupter), an 8-foot grounding rod and power shutoff at the water’s edge.

Ameren encourages homeowners to get frequent dock inspections. The company also says to obey warning signs and never swim near where breakers or GFCIs are tripping. Never attempt to energize or re-energize, engage a breaker or reset a GFCI while someone is swimming near the dock. Get the dock fixed and inspected before using or swimming near the dock.

Also, if a tingle or shock is felt near a dock, swim or get away from the dock. Do not touch any part of the dock, cable or attachments. Always exit the water away from the source of the shock.