Faced with millions of dollars in losses from flooding and the likelihood taxpayers will be paying part of the bill, Schoharie County supervisors will start the New Year considering a lawsuit against the New York Power Authority over actions the authority may have taken during the flood.
County Attorney Mike West said the county’s Board of Supervisors will vote during its reorganization meeting Monday on whether to file a notice of claim. A notice of claim preserves the county’s right to sue at a later date.
NYPA’s Blenheim-Gilboa Pumped Storage Power Project, situated just north of New York City’s Gilboa Dam on the Schoharie Creek, contains about 5 billion gallons of water in a lower reservoir and another 5 billion gallons in its upper reservoir.
The facility generates power by releasing water from the upper reservoir into the lower reservoir through tubes fitted with turbines.
Despite its location on the course of the Schoharie Creek, the B-G power plant sustained minimal damage when the creek swelled to record levels during Tropical Storm Irene.
Precisely which action NYPA took or didn’t take, and how that affected the severity of flooding downstream, is yet to be determined.
Since the flood, officials and residents have questioned whether the B-G reservoirs were filled to capacity in anticipation of the need for power when Hurricane Irene was believed to be heading for New York City.
NYPA officials have said they were not generating any power, which would send more water into the valley, up to and during the flooding.
But it’s unclear how much water was released from the system, and how quickly, in order to prevent major damage to the power plant that sits adjacent to the lower reservoir.
West said a notice of claim would give the county and its consulting firm, Couch-White, sufficient time to gather details and determine if the authority can be held liable for some damage the county and its school districts sustained.
Officials hired Couch-White earlier this year as a consultant to protect the county’s interest as it relates to the B-G facility’s relicensing.
The site’s license will expire in 2019 and preparations are expected to begin in upcoming months for the lengthy license renewal process through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
The ability for NYPA to affect the level of the Schoharie Creek became evident earlier this month when the authority released a lot of water very quickly from the B-G lower reservoir and the creek rose by nearly 5 feet within a single hour.
Authorities were surprised by the sudden water-level increase because they were never informed engineers were planning a test at the dam involving a major and sudden release of water.
The losses from massive flooding are vast in Schoharie County, West said, and they include buildings, roads, bridges and the loss of taxable assessment.
“That’s not a speculative damage. It’s certainly something you can add up,” West said.
He said damage repairs countywide could reach $60 million, and the county could end up footing as much as $15 million of that bill.
West said he’s also contacting officials in Montgomery and Schenectady counties to see if they have similar concerns.
Details of the B-G facility’s operations during the storm aren’t readily available, West said.
Much of the information is not open to the general public, according to the website of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, because the site is considered “critical energy infrastructure.”
It’s been more than three months since the flooding and a notice of claim is typically required within 90 days, West said. But he said he believes the courts are lenient on deadlines when it comes to disasters.
“Municipalities were destroyed. They weren’t thinking about this, they were thinking about recovery,” West said.
NYPA spokeswoman Connie Cullen provided the following statement in response to a request for comment Friday: “The personnel at the Power Authority’s Blenheim-Gilboa Pumped-Storage Power Project — many of whom live in the area of the facility — responded diligently and responsibly to last summer’s unprecedented storm-related flooding. In doing so, they were guided by the power plant’s federally approved Emergency Action Plan.”
The idea that NYPA could be targeted for potential liability is now being considered at the DeLorenzo Law Firm of Schenectady, which filed notices of claim with the state Thruway Authority, Canal Corp. and New York City related to the flooding on behalf of flooded homeowners in Rotterdam Junction.
Potential claims against the Thruway Authority and its subsidiary Canal Corp. include the lack of preventive measures and mitigation that could have been taken.
Studies following flooding in 2006 suggested some measures that were never followed, attorneys have said.
The firm is also targeting New York City and its operation of the Gilboa Dam, situated just a few miles south and upstream of NYPA’s B-G project.
Attorney Cory Dalmata from the DeLorenzo Law Firm said even more flood survivors who are gasping at the scope of their losses have contacted that office seeking representation.
“I received a resounding number of phone calls,” he said.
Newcomers include residents in Montgomery and Schoharie counties, Dalmata said.
He said he’s been in contact with West in Schoharie County and the plight of residents and municipalities are similar.
“We all share a common thread in that there are liable parties here and there was a lot of loss that could have been prevented,” Dalmata said.
It’s too early to consider a class action lawsuit because attorneys are at the early stages of preparing a case and lawsuits haven’t yet been filed, he said.
Schoharie County’s Board of Supervisors will meet at 10 a.m. Monday.