By Nathan Mayberg
FORESTBURGH March 7, 2006 Homeowners near the Swinging Bridge Reservoir expressed their boiling frustration with Mirant last Thursday over the slow pace of the repairs to the sinkhole which was discovered at the dam 10 months ago.
Still, it remains highly unlikely that the reservoir will be open for public use this summer.
New York State Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther, who lives less than two miles from the dam, organized the third meeting with officials from reservoir owner and hydroelectric company Mirant, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and over 100 local residents last Thursday at the Forestburgh Firehouse.
S. Linn Williams, Mirant NY-Gens Chief Executive Officer, spoke at length.
Several of those who live near the reservoir raised their voices to denounce the job Mirant has done and repeatedly called on FERC to force Mirant to raise the water back 50 feet to its original level once the sinkhole is repaired.
But the timetable for such action will be at least several months, if not up to a year, according to FERC and Mirant.
Mirant is hoping to repair the dam by July. FERC and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) will then inspect the repairs and make recommendations as to whether more work needs to be done.
In addition, the results of a hydrological study are being assessed. Mirant met with FERC on Friday to discuss the study. An assessment is expected within the next two months. Constantine Tjoumas, the Director of the Division of Dam Safety Inspections for FERC, said the study is necessary to determine the safety of residents who live downstream from the dam in Orange County.
The matter is further complicated by the fact that Mirant plans to give up its license to operate a hydroelectric dam.
We are preparing to surrender the license to FERC, said Williams.
The dam must be certified as safe before Mirant would be allowed to walk away. Residents want Mirant to be required to raise the water level before it is allowed to give up its license by FERC. If Mirant submits an application to give up its license, there will be two rounds of public comment for citizens.
In the meantime, the long stretch of water that makes up the Mongaup Hydro System, from the Mongaup Reservoir to the Rio, Swinging Bridge and Toronto can all be purchased from Mirant. The property was up for sale before the problems with the dam were discovered and there were several bids, according to Louis Friscoe, Manager of External Affairs for Mirant. Naturally, that process did not move forward after the sinkhole was discovered.
While there is no current asking price, Friscoe said that it would not take much negotiation.
[Mirant] is looking to get out of this as quickly as possible, said Friscoe.
Such a sale would have to be approved in bankruptcy court (Mirant is in Chapter 11 bankruptcy). The new owner would pick up the current license with FERC to operate the dam.
If Mirant is allowed to surrender its license, the property would be transferred to New York State. A new prospective owner could purchase the dam from the state and would have to set up a new operating license with FERC.
Among the public officials in the crowd of more than 100 were Sullivan County Legislature Chairman Chris Cunningham, Sullivan County Sheriff Mike Schiff, Sullivan County Legislator Sam Wohl, Town of Forestburgh Supervisor James Galligan, former Forestburgh Supervisor Bill Sipos and Town of Thompson Deputy Supervisor William Rieber.
An angry Town of Lumberland Supervisor John LiGreci raised his voice at FERC and Mirant for a lack of communication on the dams repairs. He called on the officials to allow the town to monitor the dam.
If that dam is gone, 40 percent of my town will be under water, he said. You can put a price on real estate, but you cant put a price on life.
Town of Thompson Supervisor Anthony Cellini remains at home, recovering from gall bladder surgery. However, his friend and town engineer Richard McGoey, relayed his message: Shame on Mirant for leaving us hostage. Like many others, he called on FERC to require Mirant to raise the water levels at the reservoir before they are allowed to leave.
Cunningham said that the long term future of this asset is of critical importance to this county. Were going to hold your feet to the fire.
Mirants CEO was apologetic to the crowd.
Im very sorry for all that you are going through. I wish it were otherwise, he said.
Williams said there are two sinkholes in the dam that were caused by the floods of last April, as well as 8 other critical items which need to be fixed.
We will commit whatever resources are necessary to make the dam safe, he said.
In the meantime, the water will remain extremely low to keep pressure off the 76-year-old dam and allow workers to make repairs.
I dont want to take your water away, he added.
But some residents were highly skeptical, saying there may never be water in the reservoir as long as Mirant operates the dam.
That is not an impossible situation, replied Williams.
Residents claimed that the slow pace of the repairs was due to the cash flow problem Mirant has.
But the necessity of the hydrological study was backed up by Sipos, who recalled an event in the late 1990s when Orange and Rockland Utilities, the former operators of the dam, forced him and others to vacate cabins they had along the Mongaup River due to concerns with the dam.
There is also the economic impact of the nearly waterless reservoir. Many expensive homes, once worth up to a million dollars, are currently valued at only a fraction of what they were, due to the lack of water.
Some of those residents are threatening to put their taxes into an escrow account until the water returns or their taxes are lowered. But so far, they have failed to contact the Town of Thompson assessors office, in whose town much of the property is located. Residents have until the fourth Tuesday in May to file a grievance with their assessment.
Nobodys been in touch with my office, said Thompson Assessor Nora Hughson.