AMSTERDAM -- Since 2008, the 150-year-old Harrower Pond Dam has received four notices from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation for being a "high hazard" dam.
The most recent, in 2018, warned the dam's presumed owner — Sergio Delavega of Jersey City, New Jersey — that the 125-foot-long and 25-foot-high stone dam was "in poor condition and worsening" and "the observed deficiencies represent significant safety concerns."
"I strongly recommend that you retain the services of a professional engineer licensed in New York State and with experience in dam safety, to fully evaluate the structure and recommend alternatives for repair and to bring the dam fully into compliance with applicable safety criteria," wrote DEC Assistant Engineer John Smith.
The 2018 violation notice says Delavega has failed to develop and distribute an Emergency Action Plan for the dam, has failed to submit annual certification documents to the DEC for the dam and has failed to take action to fix it, despite four violation notices. The notice indicates it has been distributed to Town of Amsterdam Supervisor Tom DiMezza, current Montgomery County Sheriff Jeff Smith in his former capacity as Montgomery County Emergency Management Director, City of Amsterdam Mayor Michael Villa and Montgomery County Executive Matt Ossenfort.
The notice of violation, however, does mention the Harrower Pond Dam was breached by New York state in 1980 and water continually flows out of it into the Chuctanunda Creek, reducing the height of the pond within it to about 10 feet below the height of the remaining parts of the stone dam, which are overgrown with trees and other foliage.
While current Montgomery County Emergency Management Director Rick Sager said he's not a structural engineer nor a hydrologist, he said the Harrower Pond Dam no longer functions as a dam, and he doubts it currently represents a flood risk, despite the DEC notices and warnings.
"I'm confident that we're not seeing any kind of a flood hazard for anybody downstream," Sager said. "I've been working [for Montgomery County] for 27 years and I don't ever remember having to come up here for a flood along the stream here, and we've had multiple instances where we've had flooding in other areas of the county and it hasn't been an issue."
"There's no history here that tells us that when we get a few inches of rain we need to check the Harrower Dam," Sager added. "Even if the remaining walls were to let go and allow more water out, looking at [a house nearby the dam] we've got another three feet of bank before it could get there."
DiMezza, the Town of Amsterdam supervisor, isn't so sure. "The town doesn't own it, but if that dam happens to go, there's going to be some catastrophic damage because of all of the water that is there," he said. "It's old, and it's falling apart in places, and you can see the water leaking through in places, some of it collapsed during [the Oct. 31] storm because the water was rushing so much."
The Associated Press recently featured the Harrower Pond Dam in an investigative story that revealed 1,680 dams in the U.S. are rated as being high hazards. The AP determined there are 48 high hazard structures in New York state, of which 16 are privately owned, like the Harrower Pond Dam.
The Harrower Pond Dam, located in the Town of Amsterdam, was originally built to service the Pioneer knitting mill, which was abandoned for decades before it was finally torn down as a brownfield in 2014 after it had come into the possession of the Town of Amsterdam. The town now maintains a fence around the brownfield left over from the mill demolition.
However, DiMezza said the property was never foreclosed on, in part because Montgomery County never wanted to assume the liability of the property.
"[Montgomery County] never wanted the responsibility, so they continued to forego the taxes on it and then the building was finally turned over to the town, so we could use some [state] funding to demolish it," DiMezza said.
DiMezza said Delavega, whom he doesn't believe can be located any longer, agreed to turn over the parcel to the Town of Amsterdam. However, the town only accepted ownership of the land, never the dam. DiMezza said he knows little about Delavega.
"I've never seen the guy to tell you the truth, except he came up to sign papers, to sign the mill over to us. That was it," he said. "I haven't seen the paperwork in many years, since we tore that mill down."
The Harrower Pond Dam is rated by the DEC as Class C dam, which is a dam the failure of which "may result in widespread or serious damage to home(s); damage to main highways, industrial or commercial buildings, railroads, and/or important utilities, including water supply, sewage treatment, fuel, power, cable or telephone infrastructure; or substantial environmental damage; such that the loss of human life or widespread substantial economic loss is likely.”
DEC officials, however, in an email to the Daily Gazette Nov. 15., stated, "The dam was breached in the 1980s at DEC’s request as part of a DEC enforcement action. This made the dam much safer. It currently impounds very little water, and does not present a public safety hazard during normal circumstances. It is still classified as a High Hazard dam because the remnant structure can still present a hazard under specific circumstances."
In a later email on Nov. 19, DEC officials said the Harrower Pond Dam has a maximum storage capacity of 390 acres, 127 million gallons of water and New York state does not need to take ownership of the dam in order to breach it again for safety purposes.
"Generally, if DEC decides that formal enforcement is the best path to achieve dam safety compliance, by law, DEC has to issue legal direction to the owner to address the dam’s deficiencies, through a commissioner’s Summary Abatement Order, a Commissioner’s Order after Hearing, or through a judicial order," read the email from DEC. "If the owner fails to obey the order, DEC may gain the right to implement the terms of the order, using public funds. DEC would seek reimbursement for the state’s costs, but might not be able to recover those costs."
DEC officials said that while the state has not decided to take action on the dam at this time, it continues to monitor it for safety. According to the DEC, taking down the dam might present other risks for the area around it.
"If enforcement action is taken on this dam, it would remove the hazard and the benefit of what it provides the area in flood attenuation to downstream flood streams," DEC stated in the email.
DEC officials explained what the state would do if it were to take action at the dam.
"Generally, if DEC carries out the terms of a violated order, DEC will further breach the dam, making it wider, and possibly lower, than the current breach to the most practical extent possible, so that it presents less of a public safety hazard," DEC stated in the email. "Doing so at this dam would also reduce or eliminate the flood attenuation benefits currently provided by the dam. The local officials are aware of this, and we believe the local governments should seek to work together to address this dam. Even if the state had a grant program, the dam might not qualify under the program if it is not owned by a government or not-for-profit entity."
Montgomery County District 9 Legislator Robert Purtell said county officials have not been made aware of the potential risks or options available for dealing with the apparently still privately owned dam.
"First of all, I want good information to tell whether or not the community is in danger or not," Purtell said. "That's what's most important to me. If we find out there's a level of risk or danger then we need to develop a plan to deal with it."
"I would think if there was an imminent danger that they would be responsible enough to at least let us know that there needs to be a plan in place," Purtell said.
Montgomery County Emergency Management Deputy Director Jeff Kaczor said that even during times of significant rainfall, the Harrower Pond Dam has presented no imminent flood risk.
"[The dam] isn't holding anything back," Kaczor said, referencing the lowered pond level from the existing breach.
Sager said one possible risk he could see from the deteriorating remains of the dam could come from its collapse into the breach that allows water to flow out, causing water to build up in the pond and then possibly flood the area after overwhelming what's left of the dam.
DiMezza said state officials need to take action to restore the dam.
"You can't predict what water's going to do, especially when you have a high volume coming up over that dam," he said. "We went to look at it [recently] and ... it was showing us that the water had risen four feet up on the wall, so it had to be coming over there at a real high speed for it to be up that high, and it did some damage, so I'm not sure how long it's going to last. I wish DEC would come and give us some money to correct it or fix or something rather than continue to ding us or ding [Delavega] and say it's in deplorable condition and not fix it. People along that street, their houses are going to be wiped out."