State points to 1958 agreement in denying fund to halt annual flooding

By DENISE A. RAYMO

MALONE -- Two agreements -- including one drawn up 50 years ago -- could condemn Town of Malone residents to pay for Salmon River dredging along Lower Park Street.

Federal lawmakers will be urged to step in and pressure hydroelectric-dam owner Brookfield Power to comply with its cleanup obligations on the upper portion of the river.

But even if some hope emerges there, it will be eight to 10 years before work could begin on the southern portion of the Salmon, where at least seven homes are endangered by flooding every year.

And there is no guarantee that after years of federal study, permitting and preparation, the remediation plan for the river would be approved and funded by all of the stakeholder agencies.

OLD PACT

The state says a 1958 agreement it had with the town and village makes river cleanup the municipality's responsibility. The pact is good "in perpetuity," the state says, so New York won't pay for any dredging or cleanup.

The town also has to prove -- through what could be costly soil and other testing -- where the built-up sedimentation originated from before it can approach the suspected entity, National Grid, for compensation.

All of these revelations were presented to Town Council members Thursday by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials and representatives from the State Department of Environmental Conservation.

Previous inspections by the federal agency found deficiencies all along the river's path where silt and shoals have choked off the current to a near standstill.

For the first time last fall, a majority of the problem was linked to the 1997 release of tons of built-up sediment from the Chasm Falls hydroelectric dam then owned by Niagara Mohawk.

But Robert Remmers, who is in charge of the Buffalo office of the Corps of Engineers, said that responsibility has not been established as fact.

He said the town has to prove that the release was the cause of the sediment problems that have surfaced since then along the Salmon.

Water depths once measured at 17 to 22 feet but have been reduced to as little as six inches in some places.

HOMEOWNER UPSET

Ronnie Benware, who has owned the property at 377 Lower Park St. for nearly 30 years, said his proof is behind his home, in the formation of shoals and islands that have tripled in size since 1997.

He said he has aerial photographs that show the blockages appeared and worsened after the time frame of the sediment release.

Benware said he has battled the river for years and lost his previous home to flooding and fire. He rebuilt on the same lot but this time on higher ground because he loves the location and the peacefulness of the setting.

His family boards four elderly women, and he said they enjoy the environment there as well.

But he knows the river's problems and sediment in Lamica Lake have cost him.

"The value of my property should be phenomenal. With this house and the fill I put in to build it up, I bet I've spent $200,000 on this property.

"What's it worth? Maybe $35,000 to $40,000.

"This whole thing is going to be an elongated process, and I thought it might have been something simple," Benware said. "And you'd think the DEC and Army Corps of Engineers would help us out and put pressure on Brookfield Power.

"It seems like (Town Supervisor) Howard Maneely is the only one who wants to help us out."

LOBBYING FEDS

Letters will go from the Town Council to U.S. Rep. John McHugh and U.S. Sens. Charles Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton in hopes they could have influence over Brookfield Power, which recently secured a new 40-year license from the Federal Regulatory Commission.

Language in the licensing agreement included conditions that the company must clean up the existing shoals near Brand Road Bridge and sediment behind its existing dam.

But town officials say the work has not been done and that it has no recourse to force Brookfield to honor its contract.

That's when Army Corps of Engineers official Remmers suggested getting federal-level politicians involved.

He also told the town that if a full-blown study on the river's problems is conducted, the town will have to pay for a portion of the expense and will have to share the cost of remediation.

As an example, he said, the study could cost $500,000 and the remediation another $2 million, so the town's share could be 35 percent.

Remmers said his agency's job is to assess the river and identify deficiencies. Then DEC oversees remediation of the problems through municipal agreements with the impacted towns and villages.

Malone has an agreement that was drawn up 50 years ago, and the only way the municipalities can get out of it now is to renegotiate the terms with DEC officials.

If the Army Corps of Engineers finds rivers deficiencies and the town and village refuse to act on them under DEC orders, the municipalities would not eligible for any federal funding until the problems are addressed.

draymo@pressrepublican.com

Recommended for you