The privately-owned dam has been cited as a high hazard for a number of years.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — House candidate Christopher Connell says if elected he'd look the earmark money to address the failing Bel-Air dam on Wahconah Street.
Speaking at the site of the privately-owned dam on Thursday, Connell warned that a failure could cause significant property damage and is a safety hazard for those living downstream.
And yet, the state has been unable to fund repairs or demolition of the what the Department of Conservation and Recreation has deemed a "high hazard" dam.
"When and not if this dam fails, it would create a rush of water and mud which jeopardizes the homes and safety of residents and businesses down steam. I have requested that the city's park and open space department head Jim McGrath and the city's Conservation Agent Rob Van Der Kar send out notifications to all the owners of the properties that could be affected," Connell said.
"I have stated that my campaign is focused on priorities and performance. This is just one issue that I will be addressing my first year in office. I will work with the DCR office of dam safety as well as the city in addressing this very serious issue."
The dam is owned by Barry Hollister who doesn't have the money to spend what Connell estimates will be between $5 million and $10 million to repair it. The state has leaned on Hollister in the past, taking him to court to force him to make repairs but the dam remains a hazard.
"During the winter time, you will see lots of ice coming out of all these joints. Obviously, these joints are not solid, the water behind is leaking, and every time it freezes it expands the joints weakening this already dangerous structure," Connell said.
The dam on the northern end of the former Bel-Air textile mill property. It was later purchased by Goodwill in 1965 and then sold to Hollister, who ran Ski America, a printing and advertising business. His business failed and in 2001 the mill burned. A formally well-traveled walkway over the dam was previously closed off and the dam contains the flow of the West Branch of the Housatonic River.
Connell found correspondence from DCR to the city in 2007 and then follow-up notifications in 2011. But because the dam is privately owned, there is little the city could do in this case.
"There is not much we can do as a city ... This is something that has to come from the state. The state has to step in. Somebody has to make an amendment to a public bond bill to get the funds for this," Connell said.
In 2012, the City Council adopted a massive hazardous mitigation plan from Berkshire Regional Planning Commission that identified the dam as the only one deemed unsafe, while three others, including the Tel-Electric on Mill Street that state officials have been working toward removing, were deemed in poor condition. The Bel-Air dam was listed then as a "high priority" and was only one of five projects in the city to receive that level of concern.
The state only ranks dams as high hazards when failure "will likely cause loss of life and serious damage to homes, industrial or commercial facilities, important public utilities, main highways, or railroads."
"The owner has stated that they have no assets to repair or replace this dam. The responsibility, therefore, rests with the state government given the fact that the city does not have the financial means," Connell said.
Connell's focus on the dam is in line with his campaign for the 3rd Berkshire House of Representatives seat. In launching his campaign in January, he said as Ward 4 city councilor there is only so much he could to address issues facing the city and that more resources need to come from the state — and the Bel-Air dam is one of those areas where he feels he could make an impact.
"I am here today stating that I care about this city and its residents and when I'm elected the next state representative on Nov. 8, I will do everything in my power to get the funding necessary to have this major safety concern addressed," Connell said on Thursday.
The city councilor is running as an independent for the seat against the incumbent Democratic Tricia Farley-Bouvier.
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