Allegan Dam removal talks move forward

By: 
Virginia Ransbottom, Staff Writer

As the Superfund cleanup marches down the Kalamazoo River removing dam impoundment areas filled with PCB-contaminated sediment, the City of Allegan agreed at the July 8 council meeting to move forward with community meetings that educate the public on the future of the Allegan City Dam.

Paid for by state and federal agencies as well as private companies liable for the cleanup, a dam feasibility study and conceptual drawing were presented to the council last month showing what improvements could be made if the city dam, millrace and power house were all removed.

Two other options were also presented, including partial dam removal or no dam removal. Both these options would leave the city with little or no grant opportunities and liable for any contamination left behind as the Superfund cleanup moved further downriver.

An additional $41,000 in grant money was set aside for stakeholders to assist with community outreach efforts. The council agreed to utilize that grant money by scheduling public meetings to answer questions about remediation, safety and maintenance concerns of the deteriorating dam, fish passage, water levels and recreational opportunities, among other concerns.

“We’re not going to go to the public without council approval,” said DNR biologist Mark Mills who was joined at the meeting by Dan Peabody, in the Superfund Section of Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (formerly DEQ).

State, federal agencies and liable private parties for the cleanup would like to begin planning for the project in 2020 and begin work in 2024.

Mills said the federal government will cover the cleanup and when they sign off on it, those parties who are liable are absolved of liability and what’s left behind in the impoundment is the city’s responsibility financially.

Peabody said there is a small window of opportunity to make a decision and influence the process because years before the action is occurring in the impoundment, the decision of what to do has already been made.

“That’s where we are at in this process,” he said.

City manager Joel Dye said he had received several positive comments about dam removal and two negative comments.

Mayor Rachel McKenzie said the council needs to move forward and involve the public.

“The thing that sticks in my mind is the liability it would be to future generations who will be responsible for it if we don’t do something about it now,” she said.

While full dam removal was estimated to cost the city $8 million, it would also involve clean up of the most contaminants, costing Superfund $35.5 million.

Mills said Trowbridge Dam removal was also estimated at $8 million, but with grants and other variables, the cost has been reduced to fewer than $3 million. Removal there will begin in August.

Under the impression the $41,000 in grant money set aside for community outreach was only available if agreeing to move forward with dam removal, council member Nancy Ingalsbee proposed to schedule two dates for charettes using city money because she did not use grant money if it meant committing to removal without public input.

She said charettes seem to gather the most people and she did not want the decision to be made from just a handful of people.

Dye said hosting charettes would cost $7,000 to $10,000 each meeting since the city would have to pay for their own architects. It was brought to a vote and failed 3-3 with Delora Andrus, McKenzie and Traci Perrigo voting against it and Patrick Morgan absent.

“I am going to be opposed to anything if this council votes for removal of the dam before the public has an opportunity to weigh in on this decision,” Ingalsbee said. “Money involved (with the dam or riverfront) has always gone to the public before.”

Charles Tripp said the question was bigger than the city council. “We need public meetings and then put it on the ballot box to remove the dam, ‘yes’ or ‘no’.”

Perrigo said as an elected representative it is the council’s job to make an informed decision for the good of the public because not everyone can come to a meeting.

She said she has heard all positive responses for dam removal.

“Weighing the pros and cons I only see pros,” she said. “Dams were for producing power which we don’t do anymore and we have a structure that is in such bad shape that if it should fall in the river today, the city is liable for that clean up.

“We need to move forward with getting it cleaned up.”

Mills said the grant money for community outreach has already been received and set aside; however, other grant money will only become available for dam removal because it is favorable to restore natural systems, fish passages, river corridors, recreational passage and a return to those historic conditions.

“That’s where the money comes available,” he said.

Mill district resident Leslie Dixon, who lives directly downstream of the dam, expressed her worry of how dam removal would affect the property her family has owned there since the 1940s.

Mills said the tailwater elevation would stay the same and improvement on flooding post dam removal is often seen.

“It’s not adding more water in the system, just leveling it out and a lot of the time we have seen improvements.”

If full dam removal is selected, head water levels could drop as much as 8 to 9 feet, reclaiming natural bottomlands and floodplains for recreational opportunities at the riverfront, according to conceptual draft plans.

Councilman Mike Manning asked if the floodplains created in the headwater near the riverfront boardwalk could be controlled enough in rain seasons to support footing for recreation. Mills said sediments removed from the impoundment area that are not contaminated with PCBs could be used to elevate the flood plain to handle 100- to 125-year flood level.

“We did the same thing in the Otsego Township dam removal,” he said.

Mills said historically the river was a sewer with buildings built to face away from it.

“Now we all are trying to turn and embrace it which is why Superfund is working with you—we all value it,” Mills said. “The city just needs to decide whether they want to move forward and take this dialogue to the public if it is of interest to the council and residents.”

Mills said at this point, dam removal, partial removal and no removal were still on the table; however, any future grants would only be awarded for removal.

In a second vote, the council directed staff to set a date for a community meeting with stakeholders regarding the future of the Allegan City Dam.

The first public meeting won’t likely happen until at least August after city hall moved. City hall will be closed July 25 and 26 to move into 231 Trowbridge St. from Locust Street.

The Allegan City Dam feasibility and conceptual design report is on the city’s website homepage at www.cityofallegan.org.

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