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June 6, 2013

Experts talk River Project

CUMBERLAND — Myths were dispelled and challenges revealed Thursday for about 120 attendees at the Allegany Museum when experts discussed the possibilities behind the proposed removal of the dam beneath the Cumberland-Ridgeley, W.Va., bridge.

Known as the River Project, removal of the dam would allow the North Branch of the Potomac River to return to its natural state in the hopes of opening the river for recreational use.

Hosted by Stuart Czapski of the Chamber of Commerce, the first guest speaker was William Atkinson, from the Maryland Department of Planning, who told the audience that opening the river would provide another tourism-related revenue source for the area.

“The Great Allegheny Passage has been a big success for the area. It provides around $3 million annually to Allegany County’s economy,” said Atkinson.

Serena McClain, from American Rivers, an organization in Washington that provides analysis and funding for river restorations, dispelled some key concerns while highlighting the project’s challenges.

The biggest concerns surround toxic chemicals and other harmful materials present in the sediment behind the dam and also the failure of anyone to step forward to take responsibility of its ownership.

“We did three core samples at different locations in the 1.7 mile impound zone behind the dam in 2010,” said McClain.

McClain said those samples were a red flag and a big concern for American Rivers.

She said it would cost around $700,000 to $800,000 to remove the dam. However, the dredging of toxins like base metals, dioxins and semi-organic compounds would put the project in the $5 to $10 million range, depending on the amount of removal required.

The toxic materials would have to be transported to a site in Pennsylvania that handles disposal of toxic waste.

The determination of ownership of the dam recently got a push forward when state Sen. George Edwards sent a letter to Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler on June 3 asking for an opinion on the ownership of the dam.

A variety of concerns were quelled by McClain, such as the dam being a part of flood control.

“The dam was constructed in 1959 and is an industrial dam,” said McClain, adding it was constructed by the Army Corps. of Engineers during a time when many flood control projects in the region were being done, but the dam was not for flood control.

A myth was also dispelled by McClain that the dam and bridge were joined together and removing the dam would harm the structural integrity of the bridge.

“We found that dam and the bridge are basically constructed separately,” said McClain.

She said that removal of the dam would not jeopardize the bridge structure.

Many citizens at the event asked questions following the presentations by the speakers.

The biggest concern of the evening seem to center around the level of the river during the peak tourist months of summer.

“You say that removing the dam would not change the water level. I can walk across that river in the summer and it’s only ankle deep,” said one speaker, adding that the area of the river would not be good for kayaking and that the portion above the dam should be promoted instead.

The next step will be the study of the sediment behind the bridge through core samples. McClain said the cost would be around $75,000 with around $45,000 being secured already.  She said she hopes to have the full amount by public or private donations by the end of the summer.

Jim Thompson of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources spoke about fish migration. He showed slides of how rivers looked following other dam removal projects and the increase in fish populations that resulted.

“There is a push statewide to remove industrial dams and return the state’s rivers to their natural state ,” said Thompson.

McClain also said that an important step is to get a hydraulic analysis done to be sure of the effects that removing the dam will have on water flows and levels.

McClain said that water levels should remain the same after the dam removal and the river depth in the area would average about 3 feet.

Greg Larry can be contacted at

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