Assembly Examines Dam Safety

Public hearing investigates dam failures, deficiencies, public safety preparedness
February 9, 2006

The New York State Assembly held a public hearing today in an effort to examine a wide range of public safety concerns related to dams in New York State. Assemblymember Kevin Cahill (D – Ulster and Dutchess Counties) called for the hearing, recognizing that the state had to take the lead in protecting its citizens from potentially catastrophic flooding.

The forum was convened to focus on the state’s “high hazard” dams, whose potential failure could inflict significant loss of life and widespread property damage. Legislators from all regions of the state were on hand to hear testimony from a broad cross section of elected officials, regulatory and public safety agencies, local governments and concerned citizens.

Assemblymember Cahill stressed the need for a comprehensive statewide emergency preparedness plan to be put in place in the event of future flooding or if a dam were to fail. “The response we have seen so far from the various agencies responsible for the safety of our communities has been anything but coordinated,” said Mr. Cahill. “It was very clear from the testimony presented today that there is a need for enhanced communication capabilities for our first responders, a necessity to sharply increase dam safety resources on the part of the state and a greater sense of urgency expressed by the City of New York in order to ease the concerns of citizens in the region.”

Assemblymember Cahill has introduced legislation (A.9571) that directs the New York State Disaster Preparedness Commission to focus on the state and local prevention, response and recovery plans in the event of the occurrence of a natural or man-made disaster involving existing reservoirs, dams and associated waterways. The proposed law would not only stress the importance of the maintenance and continued assessment of the dams and reservoirs located within the New York City watershed, but would also make sure that the surrounding communities are properly prepared to deal with a crisis situation should an emergency arise.

Among the witnesses who testified at the hearing today were Congressman Michael McNulty; Denise Sheehan, Commissioner of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation; Thomas Fargione, Deputy Director of the State Emergency Management Office and Emily Lloyd, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection. Congressman McNulty began the hearing with an impassioned plea that New York City express a much higher level of concern for the upstate communities being affected by the situation at the Gilboa Dam, a theme that echoed throughout the day. When pressed by Assemblymember Cahill over the recent reports of falsified dam inspection records, Commissioner Lloyd reassured the legislators that despite the photocopied documents, she was confident that the dams in question had been properly inspected.

Ulster County Legislator Michael Berardi and the Chairperson of the Schenectady County Legislature, Susan Savage, were able to present the Assemblymembers with a first-hand account of how local governments have been forced to respond to the situation while also putting a human face to the issue. Mr. Berardi stressed the need for evacuation and housing assistance in the event of an emergency. When asked what the state could do to help, Mr. Berardi responded by saying, “As soon as word comes down that flooding is imminent the most important thing Ulster County needs are bodies on the ground, knocking on doors getting people to safety. I believe it is vital that the state recognize this.”