Cumberland Times-News

June 22, 2013

Toxins, dam ownership questions challenge Potomac River Project

Dredging, transporting of waste for proper disposal could significantly add to cost

Greg Larry
Cumberland Times-News

— CUMBERLAND — The challenges before returning the North Branch of the Potomac to a free-flowing river for the first time in 55 years have become more clearly defined following a surge in public and political interest.

About 120 people, with many speaking passionately both pro and con on the topic, attended a meeting at the Allegany Museum on June 6 to listen to experts answer questions that surround what is known as the River Project.

“I’m encouraged to see that level of interest. (Councilman) Nick Scarpelli did a great job in helping to organize it,” said David Kauffman, city councilman.

The meeting confirmed that the primary issues for the project, which would include the removal of the 16-foot industrial dam beneath the Cumberland-Ridgeley (W.Va.) bridge, center around two impediments.

Although other issues exist, the two main obstructions are the most complicated and potentially the most costly — the amount of toxic materials in the 1.7-mile stretch of the river behind the dam, known as the impound zone, and the lack of any entity to claim ownership for the dam.

American Rivers, an organization in Washington that helps facilitate river cleanups, had three sediment core samples taken at various spots in the impound zone in 2010. The samples showed higher than acceptable levels of dioxins, semivolatile organic compounds and base metals.    

Serena McClain of American Rivers was a featured speaker at the June 6 meeting called the Potomac River Project Community Conversation.

The samples raised a red flag for American Rivers.

The organization has expressed the desire to have more extensive testing done by the Department of Natural Resources to get a better understanding of the scope of the contaminants issue.

The removal of toxins through dredging and the subsequent transporting of the waste for proper disposal could raise the cost of the project into the $5 million to $10 million range, according to McClain.

“It’s a matter of return on investment. Where you direct limited resources and the justification of that investment are what’s important,” said Kauffman.

Another hurdle for dam removal is trying to establish who owns the bridge. The Army Corps of Engineers, which built the dam in 1959, was asked to research it. After a cursory look through records, it denied any ownership stake.

A 2011 letter from Col. David Anderson of the corps said: “A search of our property and project records yielded no evidence that the federal government purchased a real property interest on the land where the dam is situated.

“Under the Submerged Land Act, the state of Maryland is the probable owner of the riverbed, as well as the dam itself since it is a fixture inseparable.”

However, according to McClain, the state apparently feels the corps did not do a thorough search.

“I believe the state feels the corps did not go far enough with the search,” said McClain.

The dispute may end up in the courts, according to McClain.

The District 1 legislative delegation has sought to clear up the ownership question by sending a letter to Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler on June 5 asking that the ownership question be examined and resolved.

The letter from Sen. George Edwards asked for clarification on ownership based on three areas of interest.

A finding could help establish who needs to maintain the dam and it would aid in developing a vision to identify any future potential economic opportunities as well as planning for any potential release of contaminants.

As daunting as the task may be, residents of Clark Fork River, Mont., have faced the same type of issue and now have a pristine waterway in their midst.

McClain brought up the story of the Milltown Dam in Clark Fork River. She thought it could have similarities in size and scope to the North Branch in Cumberland. That dam was a barrier at the confluence of the Clark Fork and Blackfoot rivers.

Mostly through mining pollutants, the river waters behind the dam contained high levels of contaminants.

A cleanup and dam removal was done to the tune of $13.5 million with several entities pulling resources to pay for it. Funds from a settlement surrounding the contamination of the river helped pay for the project.

The dam in Cumberland was built so the Kelly-Springfield and other companies on the river could use its waters. Their responsibility for the contamination in the river seems to have occurred before clean water laws were implemented.

 American Rivers is trying to raise funds to do extensive sediment core studies on the Potomac. The cost will be $75,000 with about $40,000 raised so far. McClain hopes the balance needed will be found so they can begin testing in the fall.

“I’m excited to see what the expenses are that we are talking about,” said Kauffman.

Another topic that needs further exploration is the effect that dam removal would have on water flow and levels on the river and its tributaries.

Greg Larry can be contacted at