With a pair of 5 billion gallon reservoirs looming upstream from Schoharie County communities, the New York Power Authority controls critical infrastructure on the Schoharie Creek.
And though no public entity can be blamed for Tropical Storm Irene and its resulting flooding last year, Schoharie County intends to bring a probe of the authority’s Blenheim-Gilboa hydroelectric facility to the courts. The county’s Board of Supervisors this week held a special meeting and agreed to pursue litigation against NYPA, owner of the Blenheim-Gilboa Pumped Power Project.
County Attorney Michael West said the board met in a closed session Tuesday evening and voted unanimously to hire an engineering firm to begin research. The county received judicial approval earlier this year to file a late notice of claim and there’s a one-year deadline for legal action to be filed, West said.
That deadline would be Aug. 28, the day when the Schoharie Creek, fueled by historic tropical rainfall, swept through homes, farms and main streets and sent hundreds of people fleeing for high ground.
It’s unclear yet what the county will claim and West said he could not divulge legal strategy that was discussed during the board’s executive session. But if there’s any liability due to the way the Power Authority’s facility was operated during the disaster, West said it’s the county’s responsibility to find out.
“It’s our opportunity to make sure that we did right. A lot of people were affected,” West said.
Legal action on the part of the county would relate only to county-specific losses, he said, but those losses also affect taxpayers, who are expected to foot the bill for lost taxable value.
Engineers will be “looking at whether the Power Authority did, everything they could have done,” West said.
He said in cases alleging negligence, a jury could find an entity partially liable and award monetary damages based on a percentage of the total damage.
It’s conceivable, West said, that operation of the hydroelectric facility could have affected the severity of damage in communities downstream.
“The question is what did they know, when did they know it, how much time, was it foreseeable, wasn’t it foreseeable,” West said.
Staff at the Blenheim-Gilboa facility were lauded following the disaster for their actions in maintaining the facility during the throes of flooding.
In a report issued to federal regulators, NYPA outlined several steps staff took in response to the storm as well as difficulties they faced when trying to release water from the lower reservoir. Water levels grew so fast that the facility’s lower reservoir began reaching heights that threatened the earthen dam that holds back 5.32 billion gallons of water. The water level on Aug. 28 rose to 898 feet — just 11 feet below the 910-foot level that could wipe out the earthen dam.
Power to the facility went out due to storm damage, so crew members began making use of an emergency generator to try to get the gates open to release water. When that generator failed, employees found a portable generator and used a power drill to eventually open all three gates.
Residents have posited numerous theories about how the NYPA facility — and the New York City’s Gilboa Dam and Schoharie Reservoir just upstream — played a role in the severity of damage following Irene. Some have suggested opening the gates at the NYPA dam caused a wall of water to sweep through the valley, while others have suggested levels in the massive reservoirs should have been lowered in advance of the storm’s arrival.
Some have theorized that NYPA made sure the reservoirs were filled to capacity before the storm, anticipating the need for power if the hurricane hit the East Coast and New York City, as initially expected.
Contrary to those assertions, Lynn H. Hait, NYPA’s regional manager for Central New York, told a crowd of hundreds at a public meeting earlier this year that the power project actually lessened the extent of flooding due to quick thinking on the part of staff. The crew began pumping water from the lower reservoir into the upper reservoir on Brown Mountain during the massive flood, he said.
Hait displayed graphs showing that more water entered the lower reservoir than spilled from the dam because crew members pumped so much water into the upper reservoir.
Completed in 1973, the Blenheim-Gilboa facility creates power by releasing water out of a reservoir on Brown Mountain. The water falls roughly 1,200 feet into penstocks — huge tubes — and rotates turbines capable of producing about 1,160 megawatts of power.
The massive facility is so large it wields “black start” capability — meaning it can jump start the entire state’s power grid in the wake of a massive power outage.
The facility was licensed by the then-Federal Power Commission, now the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, back in 1969. That 50-year license is due to expire in April 2019, and NYPA officials have said they expect a formal relicensing project will begin around 2014.
GAZETTE COVERAGEEnsure access to everything we do, today and every day, check out our subscribe page at DailyGazette.com/Subscribe
More from The Daily Gazette: