By Nathan Mayberg
FORESTBURGH May 27, 2005 The Swinging Bridge Reservoir Dam crew appears to have barely averted a total catastrophe three weeks ago when a sinkhole, estimated to be 30 feet wide and six feet deep, was discovered May 5.
The hole has since been filled in, according to officials with hydroelectric dam owner Mirant, an energy company.
Representatives of Mirant, their engineering firm, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and dozens of people filed into the Forestburgh Firehouse on Wednesday for an information-gathering session with the public, arranged by New York State Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther.
The reservoir itself is nine miles long and one mile wide. If the dam had collapsed, it would likely have taken down the Rio Reservoir Dam and Mongaup Falls Reservoir Dam with it, said Plant Manager Elliot Neri. If so, the residents of Port Jervis could have been devastated.
While company officials believe the dam is currently stable, they were quick to stress that stable does not mean safe. The company is drawing up plans to fully repair the dam before a June 2 meeting with FERC, where FERC officials will determine the adequacy of the plan.
In the meantime, Neri said local residents can forget about using the Swinging Bridge Reservoir for the rest of the summer. It will take at least 80 days for drilling to even begin, said Neri. Company officials could not estimate how much more they will have to lower the water level on the lake. They have already lowered it from its normal level of 1,068 feet above sea level to 1,047 feet above sea level.
Neri and Lee Davis, the vice president of Mirant New York, said that boating or any other use of the lake is prohibited due to safety concerns.
Safety is our number one concern, said Neri.
The massive sinkhole itself was the cause of several leaks in the penstock (a large pipe) and the diversion tunnel, according to the companys engineer, Adam Jones. A day after the leaks were identified, the hole continued to grow by four inches, said Neri. He said the company will not know if the dam is safe until it conducts drilling. It was not clear how long the dam had been leaking.
The work will not affect the nearby Toronto Reservoir, which will likely lead to increased use of that lake. Bob Barrett, President of the Smallwood Civic Association, brought up that issue to the company officials. Neri pledged to improve the boat launch area and parking lot which accesses the reservoir via Town Road 62 within the next few weeks.
As for the public, a representative of the Sullivan County Federation of Sportsmen questioned what kind of impact the companys work in the water would have on the local fish population. He contended that many of the fish would not be able to handle the change in temperature.
Town of Thompson Councilman Peppy Satenstein inquired about the companys financial stability. The officials responded that they are emerging out of bankruptcy, but they intend to make the necessary repairs to the dam.
Mirant has a toll-free number for questions: 1-888-326-3889. Information from FERC can be obtained through their website, ferc.gov, or by calling them at 202-502-6734.