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Pittsfield, Mass., Likely to Remove Dangerous 192-Year-Old Dam in 2025 or 2026

Tue March 12, 2024 - Northeast Edition #7
Berkshire Eagle

One way or another, the 192-year-old Bel Air Dam's days are numbered.

The Pittsfield, Mass., barrier's practical use as a power generator ended long ago, and it is now an active public safety and environmental hazard silently threatening the city's North End and West Side.

Successive state inspections have declared the dam to be "unsafe," and if that is not argument enough, the water spraying through gaps in the barrier's retaining wall — especially when it rains — is particularly alarming. So is the bulge that inspectors detected in the masonry dam.

The only question remaining is: How and when will it be demolished?

Officials have known for decades that the Bel Air Dam is a potentially life-threatening hazard, the Berkshire Eagle reported March 11.

State officials took its late owner to court 14 years ago in an effort to kick-start maintenance or demolition, to no avail.

Given its location on the West Branch of the Housatonic River — upstream from homes and businesses along Wahconah Street and Bel Air Avenue, and potentially blocking a route to the county's largest hospital — it is also categorized as a "high hazard."

Massachusetts has declared it one of six abandoned or unsafe dams that has to go and set aside $20 million for its removal in December.

The Pittsfield news source noted that the best-case scenario for when the dam is to be removed is likely in 2025 or 2026, when heavy equipment and a small army of workers will pull apart the old earth and stone dike and haul away an estimated 355 tons of sediment contaminated with heavy metals — the toxic legacy of 19th century industrial New England.

The result would mean a free-flowing Housatonic River, and peace of mind for property owners who have had a wary eye on the dam for decades.

That process requires planning and permits, all of which are in progress.

USACE Showed What Breach Could Look Like

Then there is the worst-case scenario, based on a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) program designed to predict flood damage and spelled out in an emergency plan first compiled by the state Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) and updated by Pittsfield Mayor Peter Marchetti's administration.

The state agency, which oversees the Office of Dam Safety, told the Eagle that it is keeping a close eye on the dam's potential threats as it completes its studies, plans and permits.

From a computer simulation, the USACE determined that in the worst-case scenario, a deluge from a 100-year storm would send water over the top of the Bel Air Dam. Over half an hour, the embankment and retaining wall would finally give way, carving a trapezoidal-shaped gap in the dam and send a surge of water and sludge roaring downstream toward the North End, Wahconah Park and the West Side.

According to the simulation, the river would reach an astonishing maximum flow rate of 8,156.62 cu. ft. — more than 60,000 gal. — per second. At that speed, the impoundment pond — normally 24-acre ft., but given the scenario, likely closer to its maximum of 54-acre ft. — would quickly empty.

An immediate evacuation would be ordered, a notification would go out to the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA), and residents would be told to quickly move to higher ground or to the city's available shelters.

In addition, the plan outlines which contractors to call, which streets to evacuate, and even shows how to properly fill and deploy sandbags.

"We would call MEMA right away and start getting resources immediately," explained Fire Chief Thomas Sammons, who also is Pittsfield's emergency management director. "It would be too much for us to handle."

But nothing could be done about the water, the Eagle reported.

In six minutes, according to the USACE simulation, the wave would reach its peak height of 1,006.95 ft. above sea level at Pontoosuc Avenue — more than a foot above the 100-year flood level of 1,005 ft. above sea level.

In half an hour, the water would have made its way to Pittsfield's West Side and dissipate in another 30 minutes in the vicinity of the CSX railroad bridge, 1.85 mi. downriver and south of West Street. There, the simulation puts the high-water mark at 994 ft. above sea level, according to the report.

Under the dry-weather scenario, a breach also does not come with a happier ending, but the wave hits at a less violent speed. In this scenario, it takes an hour for the dam to breach, and another 16 minutes for water levels to crest at Pontoosuc Avenue.

Either way, there is flood water and mud everywhere, much of it likely contaminated with lead, chromium, and arsenic — all heavy metals used in the woolen industry.

"It would be catastrophic for that part of the city," Sammons told the Eagle.

However, Pittsfield city officials have prepared. Meetings and training have focused on the dam's condition and how the city would respond, and the department's deputy chiefs and firefighters at the nearby Pecks Road station are well aware of the dam's condition, he said.

Dam Labeled 'UNSAFE' in Capital Letters

While officials are grateful that the state came through with federal funding last year, that sense of relief comes with crossed fingers. With every significant rainstorm, residents and state and local leaders have one eye on the Bel Air Dam.

"I'm glad the state and feds finally have put the Bel Air Dam at the top of the list [for demolition funding]. That absolutely needs to happen," Sammons told the Pittsfield newspaper. "I'll sleep better when it's removed."

The Eagle noted that three inspections of the dam in 2023 by the state's Office of Dam Safety, including one in July following an eight-day period that saw 5.43 in. of rain in Pittsfield, reported "no indication that the embankment was overtopped," though water was observed at the top of the dam. Inspectors said they saw "significant flow through masonry joints observed on the downstream face of the dam."

But based on visual comparisons to past inspections, "there was no obvious indication of masonry blocks that had washed out of the dam, or accelerated displacement of the dam," inspectors from Norwood, Mass.-based GZA GeoEnvironmental wrote in a report.

Still, the most recent evaluation from the firm returned failing grades, with the word "UNSAFE" included in all caps for emphasis. No fewer than 17 previous deficiencies are cited, with the first reading, "Movement of stone masonry (bulging) on the downstream face of the auxiliary spillway appears to have occurred since the last inspection."

The Eagle reported that GZA GeoEnvironmental's study said the dam's problems cannot all be seen in a visual inspection, and simply will not improve.

"Such deficiencies are not capable of self-correction and, over time, are expected to only worsen as compared to earlier inspections and reports," the engineering report added.

Much Needs to Be Done Before Demolition

For its part, the Connecticut DCR told the Eagle that it has one eye on the dam and the other on obtaining permits to remove it. Recently, its consultants appeared before the Pittsfield Conservation Commission and were granted permission to collect riverbed samples. Their goal was to find the soil strength of the riverbed once the dam is removed so they can design a new one.

According to a DCR spokesperson, the agency has sought a Notice of Ecological Restoration from state environmental regulators. The Bel Air Dam removal effort qualifies for expedited review, and once that is complete, it will need permits from the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, the Pittsfield Conservation Commission, and the USACE.

But DCR also recognizes that it is racing the clock. The agency said it is "conducting routine inspections of the dam until the removal work can begin. This allows us to monitor and take any necessary remedial action to address maintenance needs during this process."

In the meantime, Pittsfield city councilors representing the immediate neighborhoods downstream of the Bel Air Dam are deeply concerned about what a breach would mean for their constituents.

"I'm terrified we won't make it to construction [before the dam gives way]," Ward 7 Councilor Rhonda Serre said. "The planning and permitting process is what it is on the state level, and we just can't move the process any faster."

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