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Norwalk moves to remove Flock Process Dam, ignoring plea for hydroelectric plant

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The Flock Process Dam, four miles upstream from the terminus of the Norwalk River, is thought to date back to the early 1850s.

NORWALK, Conn. – Bill Burnham sees potential in a 175-year-old Norwalk River dam, but his attempt to influence the Norwalk Department of Public Works and perhaps help the state achieve a goal of renewable energy has been ignored, he said.

Burnham, a partial owner of Hotel Zero Degrees at 353 Main Ave., visited the Common Council Public Works Committee on Tuesday to share a letter he had sent to Norwalk Senior Environmental Engineer Alexis Cherichetti in January. The letter refers to a proposal to construct a micro hydroelectric facility in the present location of the Flock Process Dam, behind the hotel. It would add $1 million to the state’s coffers while costing the state nothing, Burnham said.

Cherichetti did not respond to the letter, he said.

Council members were considering a $29,400 contract for professional engineering services for the removal of the dam, which will be paid for with state funds. Cherichetti dismissed Burnham’s objections and the committee voted to send the proposed expenditure to the full council for a vote Tuesday.

Cherichetti said that removal of the dam could begin as early as this summer. She said she was not sure if the state would pay for it or the city would.

The intention to remove the dam began more than two decades ago with the fisheries department of the then-Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), now Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP), she said. “It is a priority goal because it is clear that the Norwalk River was once a spawning habitat for a variety of fish species that live in Long Island Sound,” she said.

Burnham’s letter addressed that issue.

“No information has been released as to the alewife and stripling census in the river and the cost of the alternative to breech the dam with fish ladders,” the Jan. 14 letter states. “On that subject, an upstate engineering firm submitted a proposal to construct a micro hydroelectric facility to power adjacent businesses including the hotel and upholstery firm whose property the dam is on. In the project proposal were the construction of fish ladders. It is my understanding your office turned this proposal down, a proposal which would have cost the state nothing and added to the state’s mandate that 15.5 percent of its energy needs come from renewable or clean energy sources by 2017.”

Burnham’s letter questions the expense of the project and its expected environmental outcome. It says that access to the dam is problematic and would be destructive to the hotel and other abutting neighbors. The sediment may be contaminated, Burnham wrote.

“The Flock Process Dam has been in place for over 175 years and its water flow was once controlled by a system of gates providing hydroelectric power to a small gauge railroad (managed by the still standing fieldstone station house which is now Georgio’s Upholstery) that transported munitions from a gunpowder factory that is now the hotel. Why can’t we return the dam to its original use while satisfying your objective of unimpeded fish migration. What was fine 175 years ago should be fine today. The construction of a new micro electric facility will replace carbon fueled electrical power with sustainable energy and return $1 million or more back to our state budget.”

It’s not a matter of the view from the hotel, he wrote. “A river with rapids running through the gorge without the dam would be just as majestic,” he wrote.

Speaking to the committee, Burnham said all he and others want is a public discussion and debate on the topic. He repeated some of the concerns listed above and said, “I am talking from a limited knowledge because there has been no public debate, no discussion, but what really disturbs me is that I wrote a letter Jan. 14 to the conservation officers as well as two commission members and I have not heard a response whatsoever.”

He wanted the item tabled.

Cherichetti said there had already been an environmental study done, that Burnham was welcome to come read it in her office. Tests of the sediment taken upstream, downstream and in the “impounded area” came back “relatively clean,” she said. The removal of the dam would be “minimally disruptive,” she said.

A “reputable engineering firm in Plainfield” drew up the proposal for the micro hydroelectric energy plant, Burnham said.

“She turned a deaf ear to it, saying we are too far along in the process of dismantling the dam, we don’t want to hear other proposals,” Burnham said. “She has never acknowledged the fact that she has received the letter.”

State Sen. Bob Duff (D-25) was more sympathetic, Burnham said. “He said ‘I would go to bat for you Bill, but it’s a lost cause,’” Burnham said.

“I’ve spoken with DEEP about the issue and they have advised me that they prefer to have the dam removed,” Duff said in an email. “My comments to Mr. Burnham reflect that I would continue to help to ensure his voice was being heard at the state level. However, the DEEP leadership is aware of the issue and I do believe that it would be difficult to change their opinion on removing the dam.”

Flock Process Dam RFP

Flock Process letter

Comments

3 responses to “Norwalk moves to remove Flock Process Dam, ignoring plea for hydroelectric plant”

  1. Harold Cobin

    Dam in place: Picturesque New England scene for hotel guests.
    Dam being demolished: Ugly scene of construction equipment for hotel guests.
    Tear down the dam and restore the river to its natural state.
    H.F.C.

  2. Oldtimer

    Sounds a lot like the Rowayton Ave project. “We are too far into a different plan to consider what may well be a better idea that could save a lot of tax money.” Is there some sworn obligation to spend as much as possible ? If the real incentive is to make it possible for fish to migrate upstream and it could happen another less costly way with ladders and still harness some of the river potential to generate electricity what argument against that is there except, we want to spend the money ?

  3. TVoutier

    The absence of public scrutiny of these decisions is of concern. Mr. Burnham’s plan poses a compelling argument. Renewable energy should be at the forefront of our agendas and if this is a viable solution we need to examine it carefully. Why is this not being looked at? Our first priority should be that. Secondly, have there been environmental studies to support that the dam is the sole reason for the decline and before we go about spending taxpayer money to dismantle one of this area’s natural resource where is the cost-benefit analysis?

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