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Power play

Discussions could settle Schoharie County's lawsuit againnst NYPA

Sunday, February 9, 2014
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Power play


The Blenheim-Gilboa Pumped Storage Power Project is shown in this June photo.
Photographer: Patrick Dodson
The Blenheim-Gilboa Pumped Storage Power Project is shown in this June photo.

— Talks under way between Schoharie County and the New York Power Authority could lead to a settlement in the lawsuit the county filed after Tropical Storm Irene.

Schoharie County is among several municipalities that filed civil actions against NYPA following the 2011 disaster. Joining in the complaint are the Middleburgh Central School District, the towns of Blenheim, Esperance, Fulton and Middleburgh, and the villages of Esperance, Schoharie and Middleburgh.

The complaint, filed in state Supreme Court in 2012, contends NYPA failed to properly maintain and operate its hydroelectric facility on the Schoharie Creek before flooding crashed through homes and businesses in the valley in August 2011.

Saying it would be hard to find an impartial jury in Schoharie County, NYPA lawyers in November asked to move the case elsewhere in the event it goes to trial.

The county’s Board of Supervisors held a special meeting last week to discuss the issue, but it’s not clear yet whether the case will be settled or go to trial, County Attorney Mike West said Wednesday.

“The county feels that there has to be some parameters to settling their case and they feel the Power Authority needs to make some commitments,” he said.

The board did agree to have the chairman and vice chairman continue to negotiate, Schoharie Supervisor Gene Milone said. “We just want them to recognize that there are things that have to be addressed,” he said.

He said it’s too early to describe precisely what it would take to settle the case without litigation, and he said further comment is unwise because it could hinder negotiations.

Middleburgh Supervisor James Buzon said the county commissioned a study in the months following the disaster.

The study, he said, hasn’t reached the hands of supervisors so it isn’t public record. But it contains some “science” he considers leverage for the county’s case.

Last week’s meeting focused on a written response NYPA Chairman Gil Quinones sent to Board Chairman Tony Van Glad that offered no commitments.

In response to discussions held last month, chaperoned by state Sen. James L. Seward, Quinones in the letter said NYPA is “looking into” improving cellphone communication “to remediate concerns about reliable communications in the event of an emergency.”

Quinones in the letter also said the authority would “continue to investigate” the potential for providing funding for emergency personnel.

“I believe that we can conclude these discussions with a resolution satisfactory to both the Power Authority and Schoharie County in the very near future,” Quinones said in the letter.

That’s a far cry from any solid commitment from the agency, which had to pull out a hand drill and contractor’s generator in order to get the gates open at the dam at its Blenheim-Gilboa hydroelectric facility, Buzon said.

Heavy water flow threatened the earthen dam that holds back roughly 5 billion gallons of water before crews tried to get the gates open on the dam and the power went out.

Then, a backup generator failed.

“That’s pretty bad,” Buzon said.

He said he’s looking for written assurances NYPA will take solid steps to alleviate concerns of those downstream from the agency’s hydroelectric facility.

Financial support for stream gauges and a contribution of matching funds for a hydrologic study of the Schoharie Creek basin would go a long way, Buzon said.

He said he’s not as worried as others about getting “NYPA mad at us.”

The authority’s license to operate the Blenheim-Gilboa plant expires in April 2019, and Buzon said federal regulators take a facility’s impact on the community into account when deciding on approval.

“In order for NYPA to get relicensed, they have to prove to [regulators] that they’ve been beneficial to the community,” Buzon said.

NYPA spokesman Michael Saltzman declined to comment on the case.

 
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