BOSTON GLOBE Article: State sues owners of dams seen as unsafe

State sues owners of dams seen as unsafe

Names Pittsfield, Plympton sites

By John M. Guilfoil
Globe Staff / April 6, 2010

Attorney General Martha Coakley has filed suit against the private owners of two of the worst-maintained and most potentially dangerous dams in Massachusetts, asserting that they defied state orders and failed to make repairs necessary to protect local residents.

In the two lawsuits, the state alleges that owners in Pittsfield and Plympton defied state orders and failed to repair dams deemed unsafe and potentially deadly to residents.

J. Barrett Hollister, owner of the Bel Air Dam on the Housatonic River in Pittsfield, and Roger W. O’Neil Jr., owner of Dennett’s Pond Dam in Plympton, are named as defendants. Neither owner returned calls seeking comment yesterday.

The two lawsuits mark the first time the state has taken such legal action against dam owners.

“Years of inaction on behalf of these private dam owners is unacceptable and has forced the state to file these lawsuits to ensure the safety of those who live near the dams,’’ Coakley said in a statement yesterday.

A state-ordered study found in 2008 that people would probably be killed if the Bel Air Dam failed, according to court documents.

Hollister’s dam was declared unsafe in 2002 and was ruled a “high hazard’’ to residents and property in 2005. Coakley said that over much of the past decade, Hollister “repeatedly failed to comply with orders issued by the Department of Conservation and Recreation to repair the dam and address safety issues.’’

The Dennett’s Pond Dam is categorized as a “significant hazard potential’’ to people and property. In the lawsuit, the state contends that O’Neill failed to comply with a March 2007 order to repair the dam and address numerous safety concerns, forcing the state to step in and spend taxpayer money to prevent a potential catastrophe at the dam during recent storms.

Recent inspections ordered by the state have found the dam to be in a state of disrepair, according to court documents, with “significant leakage.’’

“As the recent storm has demonstrated, keeping dams in good condition is critical to public safety,’’ said Ian Bowles, secretary of energy and environmental affairs. “Dam owners who do not live up to this obligation will be held accountable.’’

The suits were filed on behalf of DCR, whose dam safety office has oversight responsibility for dams across the state. DCR commissioner Richard K. Sullivan Jr. told the Globe last week that the safety office had referred six scofflaw dam owners to the attorney general’s office, which was the first time the state had taken that step. Each lawsuit seeks a court order for the owner to repair or breach the dam and fines to reimburse the state for any emergency repairs.

Across the state, 308 dams are classified by the state as posing a “high hazard’’ to residents or property. Of those high-hazard dams, a recent Globe review found 60 of them were in poor condition, and many of them have not been inspected since 2006. Recently, 39 dams, including both named in the lawsuits, faced significant risk of failure during the historic March rains.

“Recent heavy rains have served as a reminder of how important it is to maintain the integrity of dams throughout the Commonwealth in order to keep our communities safe and protect homes and businesses,’’ Coakley said. “Unfortunately, the state has had to step in and expend state resources several times to address safety risks at these dams, when the responsibility clearly resides with the private owners of these structures.’’

Of the 308 worrisome dams, the DCR owns 56, towns and cities own 186, and the rest are privately owned.

John M. Guilfoil can be reached at