Lawmakers were told Monday that unsafe, abandoned or obsolete dams are “time bombs” that pose a threat to public safety and wildlife habitats in Massachusetts and need to be repaired or dismantled as quickly as possible.
A public hearing was held on legislation that would require the state to identify all dangerous dams on public or private property and order the removal of any that cannot be returned to safe operation.
The measure co-sponsored by Sen. Marc Pacheco would also create a $20 million revolving loan fund for private dam owners who cannot afford to fix or remove their structures. Cities and towns would be authorized to borrow funds that could be repaid over a 40-year period to deal with unsafe municipal dams, Pacheco said.
Several experts told the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture that the majority of dams in the state were built for industrial-era purposes and have long since outlived their original purpose.
“Failure of one of these dams could result in loss of life or significant property damage,” said Peter Richardson, senior vice president of the Boston Society for Civil Engineers.
Many people who live downstream from the structures are unaware of the danger they pose, said Richardson, who compared the dams to “hundreds of potential time bombs waiting to go off.”
There are approximately 3,000 dams in Massachusetts. A state audit report issued in January rated 100 of the dams to be unsafe or in poor condition.
Richardson and other witnesses cited the 2005 failure of a 173-year-old wooden dam in Taunton, which forced nearly 2,000 city residents to evacuate They also pointed to a 200-year-old earth-filled dam in Freetown that became unstable during heavy rains last spring, prompting voluntary evacuations.
Beyond the threat to public safety, representatives of environmental groups told the committee Monday that obsolete dams can cause severe ecological damage.
“A lot of these dams are impeding fish passage,” said Linda Orel, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Conservation Commissions. “They are not good for the rivers and streams and the biodiversity that we should be striving for in these rivers and streams.”
Brian Graber, northeast regional director for the conservation group American Rivers, said many dams are in “shockingly poor condition,” and the most cost effective way to deal with them is to remove them. In addition to preventing movement of fish, Graber said dams can hurt water quality by raising water temperatures, thereby decreasing oxygen in the water.
The state auditor’s report pegged the cost of dam repair in Massachusetts at $60 million.
Pacheco, a Taunton Democrat, said after the hearing that “decades of neglect” have led to the current situation and the state can no longer delay a solution to the problem.
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