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Croghan dam saved from demolition by risk reclassification

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CROGHAN — The small dam threatened with demolition for the past couple of years has been granted a reprieve, courtesy of a lowered risk classification from the state.

“This is a big first step,” said Glen A. Gagnier, a Lewis County Development Corp. member and former village mayor who is spearheading a project to rehabilitate the dam. “It’s been a long time coming.”

State Department of Environmental Conservation officials have reclassified the two-section structure on Beaver River to a Class A, or low risk, hazard, according to a March 20 letter from Peter J. Connery, an environmental engineer with DEC’s dam safety section in Albany. That means a failure of the dam would be expected to damage nothing more than isolated farm buildings, undeveloped lands or minor roads.

The state agency had classified it as a Class C, or high risk, hazard, indicating a dam break could cause loss of life and serious damage to homes, industrial buildings, major roads or important utilities.

The development corporation last summer commissioned Gomez and Sullivan Engineers, Utica, to conduct a $138,000 design study on the dam in hopes of saving the historic structure and determining how best to refurbish it as a small hydroelectric facility. The firm in January recommended that DEC reclassify the dam, based on a dam break analysis predicting that simultaneous failure of both sections would not inundate any residences in the area, even during a 100-year flood.

“We appreciate the DEC’s willingness to objectively review the analysis done by Gomez and Sullivan in reaching its decision to reclassify the dam,” Mr. Gagnier said. “We will work with them to continue to resolve issues associated with the dam and the operation of the Croghan Island Mill.”

Citing safety concerns, DEC officials in fall 2010 removed several stop-logs from the dam to decrease the water flow, then took out more logs last year with a plan to breach it if no corrective action was taken.

The initial stop-log removal, coupled with a holiday reduction in water releases from hydroelectric dams upriver one year ago, dropped the water level lower than usual. That caused bearings on the shaft of the Croghan Island Mill Lumber Co. water wheel to break after being exposed to the frigid air, and the mill has since done only limited work using a small electric motor.

While the dam study is only about one-quarter completed, Mr. Gagnier said he feels the development corporation and community have already gotten their money’s worth from it. The new classification should also reduce redevelopment costs — estimated at $1 million to $1.5 million — because the renovated structure will not have to be as heavily reinforced, he said.

The study is being funded by $99,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, along with about $50,000 in local commitments.

U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D.-N.Y., visited Croghan Island last August, and Mr. Schumer and other federal, state and local officials issued letters of support for the USDA funding.

“Without the support of all those officials, we would be up the proverbial creek,” Mr. Gagnier said.

Mr. Connery, in his letter, indicates that DEC still considers the dam to be “in an advanced state of deterioration” and in need of repair. No stop-logs may be reinstalled until the dam has been rehabilitated or shown by an engineering report to meet dam safety guidelines, he wrote.

The concrete dam, built in 1918 to replace earlier wooden ones, first was deemed unsafe by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1981. DEC in November 2010 commenced an enforcement action against the dam’s owners, which include the Croghan Island Mill, Vaughn E. Zehr and Beaverite Products Corp.

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