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Hidy says Massena dam work shouldn't be so hard

JOHNSON NEWSPAPERS
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MASSENA — Recent repairs to the Heuvelton hydroelectric dam have left Mayor James F. Hidy scratching his head.

Mr. Hidy wants to repair the breached 98-year-old Grasse River dam in downtown Massena, but doing so would require completion of a host of environmental and regulatory studies.

In Heuvelton, Mr. Hidy said, repairs were made to the dam days after it failed in June. He said he does not understand the ease of repairs at one St. Lawrence County dam and the difficulty at another.

But comparing the Heuvelton and Massena structures is like comparing "apples and alligators," according to Judy Drabicki, regional director for the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

Debris in the Oswegatchie River is believed to have ruptured an air-filled bladder in the Heuvelton dam on June 7. The owner of the dam, Brookfield Renewable Energy, completed temporary repairs to the dam by the end of that week.

Fixing the Massena dam is very different, Ms. Drabicki said.

The original Massena dam dates to at least 1860 and perhaps the early 1800s, according to town records. The current 300-foot-long dam last was rebuilt in 1913.

In spring 1997, a large tree floating down the river after a thaw broke a hole through the center of the dam, which has remained breached since.

The 14-year gap has allowed the river to revert to the ecosystem that existed before the dam was put in place, Ms. Drabicki said.

In contrast, Brookfield completed repairs quickly enough in Heuvelton to cause a drop in the fish population this year, but a restoration to the normal ecosystem in future years.

The lapse of time and the change in the ecosystem means any repaired Massena dam would be a "new" structure requiring environmental and regulatory studies to address fish migration and wastewater treatment issues.

As an "existing" structure, the Heuvelton dam repairs did not need those studies.

"What happened in Heuvelton is sudden and catastrophic. The one in Massena is 14 years later," Ms. Drabicki said. "When something gets broken and nothing happens for 14 years, nature reroutes itself. ... We understand nature is using the river quite extensively."

The repairs Brookfield completed were necessary for the company to maintain its federal licensing at the Heuvelton site, she said.

"It's their dam, and they're generating power from it," Ms. Drabicki said.

Repairs to the Massena dam were needed 14 years ago to avoid long-term environmental changes on the Grasse River, she said.

Mr. Hidy agreed too much time has elapsed since the dam breached. But he said he is frustrated with the amount of work necessary to get it repaired.

"I think the DEC is being very selfish," Mr. Hidy said.

Mr. Hidy met this spring with DEC and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service officials to explore repairing the Massena dam to restore water levels and boost recreational opportunities on the river. The meeting did not go well: Mr. Hidy called the number of regulatory hurdles necessary for the repairs "a joke."

He has since enlisted the help of state Sen. Joseph A. Griffo, R-Rome, to try to expedite the repair process. Mr. Griffo is planning a meeting with top agency officials and should have some answers on the feasibility of dam repairs by later this summer, Mr. Hidy said.

There should be less emphasis on fish migration patterns and more emphasis on people and redeveloping downtown Massena's riverfront, Mr. Hidy said. He said he did not think repairing the dam would lead to dire straits for any fish.

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