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IF THE AGENCIES responsible for the section of Buffalo Creek that already has claimed four lives are worried about the cost or legal implications of making the area safer, they should think about the costs of doing nothing.

Four years after the last drownings, and three years after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recommended ways to make the creek safer, nothing has been done.

With spring here and water levels rising, the stage is set again for the type of tragedy that took the life of a boater and a volunteer fireman who tried to rescue her in 1987. In 1991, two inner-tube rafters died in the same stretch of water.

Yet confusion over which -- if any -- agencies are responsible for safety and over the impact of legal action by the victims' survivors has contributed to the type of inaction government is infamous for.

Part of the confusion stems from the fact that the federal government financed construction of the five small dams in the area -- between Union Road and Mineral Springs Road -- to eliminate erosion of creek banks and reduce sediment flow.

Though Washington financed most of the project, the Erie and Wyoming Counties Joint Watershed Board has responsibility for operation and maintenance. But officials say that responsibility extends only to making sure the dams serve their erosion and sediment control purposes -- which the structures are doing.

The dams are working as intended, but they also have created a problem. Water falling over such dams swirls back and creates a whirlpool below. The whirlpool is the peril that lies in wait for unsuspecting swimmers or rafters.

The responsibility for dealing with the safety issue apparently just fell through the cracks. The area is not supposed to be accessible to the public, but it would be naive to think no one will be tempted to go into the creek.

Now, for reasons that may be clear only to lawyers, Freedom of Information Act requests filed by survivors have federal officials here unsure about whether remedial safety efforts can even proceed.

The reason? Because documents relating to those efforts might have to be turned over to the plaintiffs. Legal guidance is being sought.

Somehow, the bureaucrats seem oblivious to two obvious points.

One is that public safety should be the paramount concern. Not correcting a known hazard simply because no government agency wants to take responsibility for it is the epitome of the head-in-the-sand approach.

Second, if safety isn't enough of a concern, the liability costs of ignoring that hazard should be. Even though officials say it's not been "conclusively proven" that the drownings occurred below the dams, four people have died, lawsuits have magnified the issue and officials have a study in hand proposing solutions for a man-made hazard in the creek.

Ignoring the issue could end up costing taxpayers more.

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