Hawley gets clarification on DEP penalties

HAWLEY — Residents filed into Hawlemont Regional School to learn just what emergency repairs done to the Chickley River in 2011 will cost the town.

The state Department of Environmental Protection is requiring Hawley to pay $184,000 in penalties after finding that flood mitigation and repair work done in response to Tropical Storm Irene exceeded the scope of DEP-approved emergency work.

To better understand the penalties, and Hawley’s culpability in the violations, residents passed the hat to pay Town Counsel Donna MacNicol to come explain the situation. About 50 residents came to the forum with questions and left with answers.

In the wake of the storm, the town received an emergency work order from DEP, allowing Hawley to perform work in and along the river to prevent further flooding, and repair some of the damage already done to roads and other property.

Hawley hired E.T. & L. Corp. to perform the work, which would be directed by the town. However, DEP found that the town overstepped that work order by dredging the river and blocking off its flood plains, and levied penalties against Hawley.

Many objected to DEP’s finding that Hawley was responsible for illegal repairs, stating that E.T. & L., as professionals in the field, should have advised the town that the work it ordered was in violation of environmental regulations.

MacNicol explained that the town was liable, as the contract with the company specified that all repairs would be directed and supervised by the town.

Residents contested that the little town of 338 couldn’t be assumed to have any expertise in river reconstruction or the lengthy regulations that govern it. Many felt the town should have brought in experts, or had E.T. & L. provide engineers or supervision.

MacNicol reminded everyone that what was done was done, the town is being held accountable, as is E.T. & L., and both are being penalized.

Rather than fines that would go into state coffers, the DEP is having the town put $109,000 into an escrow account that will be used for post-restoration river monitoring and tree planting over five years. E.T. & L. will contribute $41,000 to the account, in addition to fines assessed to the company.

Hawley is required to pay $75,000 of the company’s fines. The company was charged with an initial $175,000 fine, but $66,000 of it will be suspended if E.T. & L. completes the already-started restoration work in compliance with the settlement.

E.T. & L. has admitted no wrongdoing, but agreed to a $400,000 restoration plan nonetheless.

A thorn in the side of many Hawley residents is the feeling that the DEP was notified about violations by a group of environmentally concerned residents.

Some at Wednesday’s forum called for an end to the finger-pointing and vilification of those residents, stating that now is the time to move forward, not assign blame.

MacNicol reminded them that the dramatic changes to the 5.1-mile stretch of river would’ve been noticed eventually, either by college students who regularly conduct surveys of endangered species in the river, or anglers who flock to the Chickley from all around during fishing season. Whatever the source, she said, it would have wound up on DEP’s radar eventually.

Another gripe was the fact that the Hawley selectmen, the DEP, and E.T. & L. negotiated the settlement behind closed doors, and only the final agreement was released after being signed.

MacNicol told residents that the negotiations were strictly confidential, and participants were under strict orders not to talk about details. Some proprietary documents, she said, were even taken from participants at the end of each meeting to preserve confidentiality.

The repairs and penalties have been costly, and repair work outside of the river still remains to be done.

More than $1.7 million was spent in Irene repairs in Hawley, with $1.23 million reimbursed and another $150,000 expected from FEMA, and an estimated $175,000 from it’s Massachusetts counterpart.

Town officials estimate that work on Forge Hill and East roads, as well as a berm behind the highway garage, will cost the town another $210,000, if FEMA kicks in its usual 75 percent. The town expects another $130,000 in work not eligible for reimbursement also needs to be done.

Add that to the DEP penaties, and it comes to $524,000. Were it all to be done at once, with short- and long-term borrowing, it would raise the town’s property tax rate by about $1.60 per $1,000 for seven years.

Asked which projects should receive priority, residents at the forum felt they needed preliminary engineering to be conducted to provide more concrete estimates before deciding what to do first.

David Rainville can be reached at:
or 413-772-0261, ext. 279

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