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Work Begins To Fix "High Hazard" Dam


     Work has begun to secure a dam in western Massachusetts that was flagged almost a decade ago as a threat to public safety and property.

    Improvements are being made to strengthen an earthen dam, which if breached could cause catastrophic damage to elegant homes in the Atwater Park neighborhood of Springfield, and also to Baystate Medical Center.

   Mayor Domenic Sarno said the city tried for years before recently obtaining the $2 million to do the work needed to shore up the Van Horn Dam.

  " It is not a sexy project, but it was right on the top of our list to make sure we secured the proper funding for it," said Sarno.

   The project is being paid for by a public-private partnership that consists of $1 million from the state and $1 million from MassMutual Financial Group.

   The dam, which holds back the water in a reservoir in Van Horn Park, was cited in 2007 as a “high hazard” after state inspectors found it to be structurally deficient and in poor condition.

   Springfield Park Commission Chairman Brian Santaniello said officials have kept a nervous eye on the dam for at least 15 years.

   " We would get reports from consultants that said all it would take is a 100 year storm and it would breach," He said.  " Thank God  Superstorm Sandy missed us."

   During the administration of former Gov. Deval Patrick, the state legislature created a $70 million fund to address the state’s numerous deteriorating dams.  Funds earmarked for the Van Horn Dam project were released earlier this year by the administration of Gov. Charlie Baker.

  Ben Craft, the director of government and public affairs at Baystate, said the hospital is relieved the repairs to the dam are finally being made.

  " We don't close. We can't close no matter what comes down the pike, weather- wise or anything else," he said.

  The major part of the project is the removal of numerous trees from the dam, according to Pat Sullivan, the city’s director of parks.

" Years ago it was thought trees were beneficial to a dam, but we've learned they actually create voids and can cause problems  during extreme storm events," explained Sullivan.

The work also includes erosion protection on both sides of the dam, hard-packed stone will be put on the water side, and a walking path built on the top.

The Van Horn Dam work is one of several projects Springfield is undertaking to make the city safer, better prepared, and more resilient in the event disaster strikes.  Earlier this year, the city was awarded $18 million by the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development under a national disaster resiliency program.

Springfield will use the federal grant to leverage private funds for a multitude of projects, according to Peter Garvey, the city’s director of capital asset construction.

" We have about $60 million in projects identified," he said.

The city was eligible for the federal funds because of multiple natural disasters in 2011, including a tornado, tropical storm, and crippling October snowstorm.

Paul Tuthill is WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief. He’s been covering news, everything from politics and government corruption to natural disasters and the arts, in western Massachusetts since 2007. Before joining WAMC, Paul was a reporter and anchor at WRKO in Boston. He was news director for more than a decade at WTAG in Worcester. Paul has won more than two dozen Associated Press Broadcast Awards. He won an Edward R. Murrow award for reporting on veterans’ healthcare for WAMC in 2011. Born and raised in western New York, Paul did his first radio reporting while he was a student at the University of Rochester.
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