Blenheim-Gilboa dam operator faces $100M in lawsuits
Actions claim negligence worsened floods
NORTH BLENHEIM The New York Power Authority is defending itself against more than $100 million in lawsuits filed by municipalities, a school district, farmers and other landowners who suffered losses during flooding from Tropical Storm Irene.
Three separate actions were filed in state Supreme Court in Schoharie County alleging the authority was negligent in maintaining and operating its hydroelectric facility on the Schoharie Creek in North Blenheim.
NYPA’s Blenheim-Gilboa Pumped Storage Power Project makes use of two reservoirs, each holding about 5 billion gallons of water, to create electricity. Water is released from the upper reservoir on top of Brown Mountain down through massive tubes and into turbines that spin and create power.
The water ends up in the lower reservoir, then the turbines spin in reverse and pump it back to the upper reservoir.
In the lawsuits, all filed near the end of August, several entities and landowners claim NYPA failed to maintain the system and didn’t heed weather forecasts in time to get water out of the system.
Seeking a combined total of $100 million from NYPA are Schoharie County; the towns of Blenheim, Esperance, Fulton, Middleburgh and Schoharie; the villages of Esperance, Schoharie and Middleburgh; and the Middleburgh Central School District. They each seek $5 million for property lost or damaged by flooding, as well as lost taxable value, and they are each seeking another $5 million in punitive damages.
In a separate claim, Nickerson Park Campground Inc., situated just upstream of the project, is seeking $10 million for damage to the campground, roads and topography, camp site loss, viewshed impacts and loss of access to and use of streams.
Five other property owners filed a separate lawsuit seeking a total of $2.6 million in compensation for destruction and damage, loss of use, loss of income and emotional distress that followed the storm. These are Parcels Plus LLC, John R. Seebold, Yon Suk Seebold, Floyd A. Guernsey III and F.A. Guernsey & Co. Inc.
These property owners are suing for separate amounts to recoup losses sustained at 309, 311 and 313 Main St. in Schoharie; at 158 Church St. in Central Bridge; and 159 Grand St. and 149 Bridge St., both in Schoharie.
This action, filed by John R. Seebold, who is also an attorney in Schenectady, alleges NYPA is at fault for flood damage due to “negligence, recklessness, trespass, culpable conduct, misfeasance, lack of care and breach of duty.”
Seebold could not be reached Tuesday.
The lawsuit claims NYPA failed to maintain the hydroelectric facility in good working order. It also alleges NYPA didn’t do enough to regulate the large amount of water associated with last year’s hurricane.
The Nickerson lawsuit and the separate suit by the municipal entities were both filed by the same law firm, Couch White LLP, and contain similar allegations.
Couch White attorney Michael T. Wallender could not be reached Tuesday.
The lawsuits allege NYPA failed to properly maintain the hydroelectric facility and take appropriate actions in light of a week’s notice a big storm was headed toward the Northeast.
Actions the lawsuit suggests NYPA failed to take include: monitoring the weather, employing adequate flood loss prevention and mitigation measures, appropriately planning for storm response as required by the facility’s emergency action plan and releasing water from the reservoirs.
The lawsuit alleges NYPA was negligent by allowing water to impound behind the facility’s dam at the lower reservoir and in its upper reservoir, which allowed water to “back up onto adjoining properties.”
The filing further claims NYPA didn’t maintain the reservoirs and equipment enough and suggests equipment that could have helped release water was clogged due to silt that accumulated from flooding in 1996 and 1987.
It alleges NYPA failed to “properly design the intake to the pump-turbines to anticipate clogging of strainers, when such event had occurred in a similar setting in 1996.”
Attorneys representing NYPA have submitted responses to the lawsuits filed by the municipalities and by Nickerson Park Campground. The majority of the responses simply deny knowledge or sufficient information “to form a belief as to the truth of the allegations.” Other responses simply refer to “Power Project Records.”
For its defense, NYPA’s court filing states, “NYPA exercised reasonable care and diligence at all times.”
The authority also appears to point blame at Schoharie County and the municipalities and school district.
“Upon information and belief, Plaintiff’s alleged damages were caused, in whole or part, by their own negligence, which negligence was the sole, proximate and/or contributing cause of Plaintiff’s alleged damages,” the NYPA response states. “And such alleged damages were not proximately caused by any negligence, fault, willful conduct or want of care on the part of NYPA.”
Though it doesn’t go into any detail, the NYPA response also suggests the alleged damages were “caused, in whole or part, by the negligence of third parties over whom NYPA had no control.”
It also contends that damages alleged by those suing NYPA were “caused by an act of nature and/or an act of God.”
NYPA spokeswoman Connie Cullen on Tuesday provided the following statement: “The New York Power Authority is confident that it acted prudently and responsibly in its actions at the Blenheim-Gilboa project last year in response to the high water flow conditions caused by Tropical Storm Irene.”