By Nathan Mayberg
MONGAUP VALLEY February 24, 2006 Nine months ago, Mirant began draining Swinging Bridge Reservoir and other local reservoirs in order to repair a sinkhole approximately 30 feet wide at the Swinging Bridge Dam.
Most of the water in Swinging Bridge, the largest of the hydroelectric companys reservoirs at nine miles long, is now completely gone. Meanwhile, work on the sinkhole continues.
Local residents, including Pat Croissant who owns Swinging Bridge Marina with her husband Bill, are growing impatient.
The countys largest boating lake is now nothing more than a desert, as Pat Croissant called it. One of the countys major tourist attractions and a center of recreation for so many years has vanished.
Louis Friscoe, the Manager of External Affairs for Mirant, is cautiously optimistic that the first phase of repairs on the sinkhole can be completed within the next two months. However, he put no timetable on when the water may return to the reservoir. And his company may give up its federal license for the Swinging Bridge Dam.
All of that makes Croissant believe that her marina will once again be void of any business other than some campers this summer. The marina is usually host to thousands of people who utilize the lake through boating, jet skiing, swimming, fishing and camping. But last year, it was virtually all gone. Their restaurant and boat launch were forced to close. She fears this year will be worse than the last.
The water surface elevation is approximately 45-55 feet lower than it was 10 months ago at Swinging Bridge. While the Mongaup and Rio reservoirs were also lowered, they werent drained as heavily as Swinging Bridge. In fact, they have returned close to their normal levels, according to Mirant. But Swinging Bridge lays barren, aside from a small, narrow stream that courses through the deepest sections of the valley.
Despite Mirants estimates that work will be done by May on the sinkhole, Croissant doesnt believe it, and she certainly has no hope for the water to return.
We are not at all optimistic. Mirant claimed they dont have enough money to fix it, she said.
In a letter from S. Linn Williams, Chief Executive Officer of Mirant-New York, the company told the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in January that it remains under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and has limited funds. Williams said his company is particularly concerned with taking those actions that maximize public safety using the limited financial resources available to it. Moreover, [Mirant] is currently evaluating all options with respect to the future of the SB-Dam, including the possibility of surrender of the FERC license for the SB Dam project and associated hydroelectric projects on the Mongaup River. In light of those concerns, [Mirant] looks forward to working closely with you and the rest of the Commission Staff as we move forward with remediation efforts that focus on the continued safety of the Swinging Bridge dam.
Croissant said that conflicts with a statement made by the company in May that it had billions of dollars in assets. The company was soliciting bids to sell the dam prior to the sinkhole being discovered. They successfully fought to have their assessments reduced on the reservoirs throughout the county in bankruptcy court.
The company is seeking to keep the water level at its current level in order to ensure the safety of the dam, said Friscoe. The sinkhole is actually a leak inside the dam. The surface of the dam is depressed, he said.
The dam itself dates back to 1929. FERC checks up on the dam work about once a month, said Friscoe. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation is also out at the dam site periodically.
Little is known about the impacts of the dam on the local ecological system. Mirant officials have denied that fish populations have been disrupted.
Croissant said she doesnt believe it.
There is no water in the lake, she stated.
She said eagles and other birds used to frequently stop by the lake, but no longer.
On Wednesday, Mirant met with emergency officials throughout the area in order to discuss an emergency action plan on how to respond in case the dam was to fail.
Another meeting between the public and Mirant was scheduled by New York State Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther for March 2 at the Forestburgh Firehouse at 5:30 p.m. United States Congressman Maurice Hinchey or a representative from his office will also be in attendance.
Croissant credited Gunther for working hard to stay on top of the issue. Gunther and Hinchey are also investigating whether the marina is eligible for any grants.
The Croissants have not determined whether they will seek compensation from Mirant from all of the business they lost. Mirant said they have not considered that yet either.
You cant just take a 37-year business and toss it in the garbage, which is basically what has happened to us, stated a dejected Croissant. Its the worst thing that could ever happen.
Another major problem: the assessment of lakefront homes. Without being considered lakefront property, many of the expensive homes which can run up to nearly one million dollars in value are now worth much less. But the few residents who have sought tax relief have so far been rejected at the assessors office in the Town of Thompson, said Croissant.
And the marina isnt the only business which has suffered. Croissant said other companies along Route 17B which relied on Swinging Bridge Reservoir-related traffic have taken major hits.
Furthermore, she believes the Sullivan County Legislature should take a proactive role in the problem. She said she doesnt think the county realizes the extent of the damage.
This is one of the main tourist attractions in the county. This is not a New York City Dam. This is the largest lake in the Catskills. This whole area was a moneymaker for the county.
I havent heard from the county at all, she said. Gunther is the only one who has taken an interest in the whole thing, she concluded.
At a recent meeting of the County Legislature, Legislator Sam Wohl made a motion to put the dam, state and federal government on notice to ensure the dam is fixed.
Mirant is dragging their feet, he said.