Flood damage points to government neglect

WORCESTER, Mass. — The worst flooding in 70 years has devastated much of Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine, leaving dozens of towns disaster areas, and focusing public attention on decades of neglect for the Massachusetts infrastructure, especially its 3,000 dams.

Damage from heavy rains has been widespread: 60 percent of Saugus, Mass., was underwater at press time.

Raw sewage spewed into the Merrimack River and flooded towns in the surrounding valley as sewage treatment plants failed. A burst sewage pipe in Haverhill, Mass., began pouring 35 million gallons of sewage per day into the Merrimack. Lowell, Mass., as well as other cities and towns, found themselves bracing for the possible loss of drinking water.

Across the region, thousands of residents were evacuated, while homeowners feared for the worst.

At press time authorities and residents alike were worried that the Spicket Falls Dam in Methuen, Mass., would be breached. At around 9 p.m. on May 15, a portion of the dam had given way. Its collapse would create havoc and disaster for communities downstream.

While the cause of the flooding was natural — a storm that stalled over the region — much of the resulting threat to human welfare stems from official neglect.

The Senate Post Audit and Oversight Report on dam safety, released in Boston on May 15, pieces together a picture of decades of government neglect. According to the report, Massachusetts has no comprehensive list of its dams, despite urgings 30 years ago by the University of Massachusetts that it compile one.

Further, under the leadership of Republican Gov. Mitt Romney, the Department of Conservation and Recreation failed to adopt dam safety regulations until 2005 — three years after the Legislature past a statute requiring the DCR to do so.

The document goes on: Half the state’s dams “have not been assessed for any type of structural condition, while at least 5 percent of dams have no known hazard potential classification.” In 2001, only 14 percent of dangerous dams in the commonwealth had emergency action plans. That number actually decreased to 8 percent the next year, in contrast to the national average, 36 percent.

According to the report, the problems have worsened under Romney. While the commonwealth has only seven full-time employees to monitor all the dams, the Romney administration has denied any requests to raise staffing. In addition, while the authorities in charge of dam safety requested about $1 million dollars for dam safety, Romney only allocated about half that amount, $512,476.