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Better warnings urged at dams after Heuvelton teens rescued from rising waters

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HEUVELTON — A pair of Heuvelton teens had to be rescued from the Oswegatchie River last week after water was released from a dam, leading to calls for better safety measures, including sirens.

Michael G. Bell, 17, and Brandon A. Parmeter, 16, found themselves in waist-deep waters while fishing July 28 under the Route 812 bridge, a short distance below the Brookfield Renewable Energy power dam. They said the water rose so fast they didn’t know what hit them, and spent a half-hour braced against a rock awaiting help until members of Heuvelton Volunteer Fire Department arrived.

“It scared us at first, not knowing how long we were going to be in the water before anyone knew we were there,” Mr. Bell said.

“We fish down there all the time, and this has never happened to us before,” Mr. Parmeter said.

Brookfield maintains that nothing unusual happened that day, although it said it is improving its warning system.

Now posted on either side of the river are signs stating no swimming and cautioning “fast rising water — stay out of the river bed.” But those signs weren’t there on July 28, according to the young men and Mr. Parmeter’s mother, Laura M.

Mrs. Parmeter said the day after the incident, Brookfield employees put up new signs while wrapping signs that warned “Danger: Vacate river bed if warning siren sounds or warning light is flashing” in tarps and duct tape.

But there was no siren, and signs aren’t enough, the mother said.

“To me, it is a safety factor, obviously,” Mrs. Parmeter said. “It’s disappointing because there is a system and obviously it malfunctioned; and then covering the signs — there is something wrong.”

Brookfield Regional Supervisor John B. Gamble said there is no alarm currently installed at the dam and the signs posted about sirens are a precursor to a system being installed that is expected to be activated in the next two weeks. The signs have been covered to avoid any confusion in the meantime, he said.

Had a siren been instituted at the time of the incident, it would not have gone off anyway, Mr. Gamble said, because it would have been used only in an emergency.

“This was the normal ebb and flow of the river,” Mr. Gamble said. “It’s the way that dam has operated for the last 20 years. Nothing has changed. On that particular day, the timing was just not good.”

The pond above the dam is constantly being monitored by a generator, and two large balloons are used to collect water and then release it through the dam to keep the pond at a consistent level.

“At that point, it was at its maximum flow,” Mr. Gamble said. “There is nothing that happened here that didn’t take 20 minutes to a half an hour to take place, easily.”

Had the young men waited another 15 minutes, the water would have lowered to the point that they would have been able to walk ashore safely, Mr. Gamble said.

But the incident has caused Brookfield to re-evaluate how the water monitoring system operates, Mr. Gamble said.

“We are certainly looking for a resolution even though we haven’t had a problem in over 20 years,” Mr. Gamble said.

Heuvelton First Assistant Fire Chief Nick B. Friot said calls like this are out of the ordinary for the Fire Department.

“This hasn’t been a problem in recent history, at least not in the last 10 years,” Mr. Friot said.

Water is released from the dam slowly enough to allow people who are mindful ample time to get out of the way of increased currents, Mr. Friot said.

But Mr. Bell said it took only seconds for the water to go from ankle-deep to waist-deep.

“I’m surprised that we didn’t lose more than a pair of glasses, a shoe and the fish we caught,” Mr. Bell said.

Standing on the banks of the Oswegatchie on Friday, the boys pointed to the concrete pillar under the center of the bridge where they were fishing.

The currents, while substantial on Friday, were nothing compared with what the boys said they were up against when they found themselves trapped.

“As a parent, this is frightening — not only for my kids but for other people’s kids,” Mrs. Parmeter said. “This is what they do. Fishing is their outlet, and now parents have this to worry about.”

Zev Korman, the vice president for investor relations of Brookfield Renewable Energy Group, said the company takes situations like this and its commitment to safety very seriously.

“I understand the teenagers in question who were fishing were doing so from a location downstream from the dam,” Mr. Korman wrote in an email last week. “We maintain signage in the immediate area alerting people to the potential danger and the possibility of rapid changes in water levels, and we’re in the process of installing additional signage to emphasize this even further.”

While there are signs surrounding the dam itself, there are no such signs where the boys were fishing, because that is not Brookfield property.

Mrs. Parmeter and the boys said Brookfield should have a siren installed that will sound whenever water is released from the dam, not just in cases of emergencies.

Mr. Gamble said that probably would not go over well with residents living near the dam, as water is released often.

“My son always, always pays attention and is always alert because he knows how dangerous it is down there,” Mrs. Parmeter said Friday, standing with the boys as she looked to the spot where they were pulled to safety. “I just have to say that you two were very lucky. Lucky, lucky, lucky.”

While safety measures are being re-examined and improved, the best precaution is awareness, St. Lawrence County Undersheriff Scott F. Bonno said.

The undersheriff said signs typically surrounding the bases of dams throughout the county could be a reason why there have not been more incidents like this. The sheriff’s office was not called to the scene on July 28.

“This is a rarity. I can’t think of the last time something like this happened,” Mr. Bonno said. “The obvious thing, no matter what you are doing, is to be mindful of your surroundings.”


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