Tel-Electric Dam removal project design work expected to be completed in 2016

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PITTSFIELD — Project design work for a long-planned removal of the Tel-Electric Dam from the West Branch of the Housatonic River in downtown Pittsfield is expected to be completed later this year, allowing the work to begin early in 2017.

Alex Hackman, of the state Division of Ecological Restoration of the Department of Fish and Game, said the project is a "multi-stakeholder" effort, involving several state agencies, the city and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The dam and abandoned hydropower facility, retaining walls and a bridge that supports an unused rail line upstream from the structure — now dilapidated — are expected to be removed.

That and related work will strive to restore the ecological quality of the section of the Housatonic by restoring a continuity of water flow, and include removal of built-up sediment and debris behind the dam.

Other goals, Hackman said, include improving public safety and reducing the chances of flooding, as well as facilitating greenway enhancements along the riverbanks. The river in that section flows in a meandering fashion past Wahconah Park in Pittsfield before meeting up downstream with the East Branch of the river and heading toward the Lenox line.

The dam structure, now owned by Nash family, is adjacent a brick mill building and behind the rear parking area for the Clock Tower building on South Church Street, which houses The Berkshire Eagle, Hackman said.

The estimated $1.5 million in funding required for the project will come from $750,000 awarded the city in 2008 as part of the GE consent decree settlement related to PCB pollution of the river from Pittsfield industrial sites, and federal grant funding allocated to the state.

The Division of Ecological Restoration, which works on dam removal projects and other waterway restoration efforts in the state, also has provided in-kind support in project management since 2006, and $30,000 for a project feasibility study.

James McGrath, Pittsfield parks and natural resources program manager, said the city hopes to prevent the effects of any uncontrolled breach of the 96-year-old dam to ensure public safety, and restore original river habitat and improve fish and wildlife movement through the site.

He said the project also is expected to improve water quality and river temperatures and oxygen levels for fishlife, while improving public access to the Housatonic and eliminating navigation hazards.

Spin-off benefits, McGrath said Thursday, "include urban revitalization of the river corridor and — generally — restoration of a public resource."

The dam area was proposed in 2008 as part of a Westside Riverway along the West Branch of the Housatonic between Wahconah Park and Clapp Park on West Housatonic Street.

According to a report prepared in April for Hackman and the DER by project managers, Princeton Hydro, LLC, of South Glastonbury, Conn., the Massachusetts Office of Dam Safety "found the dam to be in overall poor condition with significant operational or maintenance deficiencies" in 2000.

That assessment prompted discussions between the dam site owners, the city and DER, and led to proposed removal of the structure. Receipt of grant and settlement damages funding followed two years later.

Princeton Hydro late last month submitted an Expanded Environmental Notification Form to request from the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs a waiver for the dam removal project from the need for a full environmental impact report.

Citing work and "extensive analysis completed to date," Paul Woodworth of Princeton Hydro writes that preparation of a full EIR would not "serve to avoid or minimize damage to the environment," as described in environmental regulation.

The project, instead, "rather serves to improve the environment," according to the letter to the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

Hackman said during an interview that the DER often requests a waiver from the full EIR on such projects. In this case, he said, considerable data already has been collected about the site.

He said that during the planning and design process this year, the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act office will inform DER what permits will be required for the dam removal and related work.

Hackman said a public comment period on developments in the planning process will be posted next week and a site visit will be scheduled. The notice will appear in the MEPA Environmental Monitor on Wednesday, he said, with comments due by June 10.

Opinions from officials from various state agencies or departments, environmental organizations and the general public are expected, he said, adding that he intends to schedule a visit to the site or tours for interested parties.

The Tel-Electric (or Mill Street) Dam is described as a privately owned, abandoned, run-of-river style hydropower facility that originally provided water power to nearby mills. It is 18 feet high and 40 feet wide with a 30-foot, curved spillway face.

Retaining walls on both sides of the river are said to be in fair to poor condition. The concrete arch Mill Street bridge, about 200 feet downstream from the dam, is in a deteriorated condition, and the posted weight limit has been reduced to 8 tons.

The property totals 3.11 acres around the dam structure.

Located about 75 feet upstream is the abandoned steel railroad bridge, dating to about 1940, which is the one designated for removal.

Contact Jim Therrien at 413-496-6247.


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