Who should regulate Vermont’s dams? Why one town is raising questions

Published: Jun. 19, 2023 at 5:17 PM EDT|Updated: Jun. 19, 2023 at 6:49 PM EDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

PLAINFIELD, Vt. (WCAX) - The Marshfield Dam in Cabot is regulated by the Public Utility Commission, but town officials in Plainfield say they wish it wasn’t.

In Vermont, the entity that governs any of the state’s approximately 1,200 dams is determined by a variety of criteria. Dams that generate power are regulated by either the federal government or the Public Utility Commission. All others are regulated by the Agency of Natural Resources.

Officials in Plainfield are questioning who should be in charge of dams holding back water and keeping towns, homes and businesses below safe from a flood event.

The Marshfield Dam is a nearly century-old hydroelectric earthen dam owned by Green Mountain Power. It holds back 397 acres of water, forming the Marshfield Reservoir, a popular boating and fishing site.

“I just really enjoy the water and the natural environment. I like to listen to the sounds of nature, the sounds of the water of the paddles, the call of the loons, the sound of the eagles overhead and the splashing of the big bass and beavers,” said Rameen Zahed of Montpelier.

But the dam sits upstream from the communities of Plainfield, Marshfield and Calais, leaving thousands in the flood path should the dam fail. No one is suggesting the dam is currently unsafe, but some town officials in Plainfield are questioning how the safety of the dam is regulated by the state.

“The fact that it’s a power-generating dam gives it a less stringent safety protocol than if it were a regular dam,” said Bram Towbin, a member of the Plainfield Select Board.

Because this dam is regulated by the Public Utilities Commission, it only has to be inspected every five years and the inspection is managed by GMP.

Plainfield officials say other dams regulated by the Agency of Natural Resources are inspected every two years and they have their own dam safety engineers on staff to address any issues.

“The dam is supposed to be inspected every five years and provide a report from an engineer that, in fact, the power company has hired to do the inspection, so that person is beholden to the person they’re working for. And often, they are not as extensive or as critical as they could be,” said Michael Billingsley, the Plainfield emergency management coordinator.

“I think the regulatory scheme right now is inadequate,” said Rep. Marc Mihaly, D-East Calais.

Mihaly says he agrees with Plainfield town officials and is interested in drafting legislation that would require that ANR take over.

“I think the dam safety division of the Agency of Natural Resources is excellent. They have engineering expertise. They regulate frequently. They have engineers that they use and even if they use consulting engineers, they have the internal skill to supervise them,” Mihaly said.

Officials from Green Mountain Power, the utility company that owns the Marshfield Dam, say whether or not the switch happens, they’d be fine either way.

“Across all of our hydro facilities in Vermont, GMP already follows the most stringent federal rules for our facilities and that will continue,” said Kristin Carlson, the vice president of GMP.

Kyle Landis-Marinello, a general counsel for the Public Utility Commission, says he understands the town’s concerns, and that while safety is a top priority for the commission, there could be benefits of having the regulation of Vermont’s dams be centralized under ANR.

“The Agency Natural Resources has in-house expertise. They have dam experts on staff in a program that looks at all the dams across the state and there are some efficiencies to having one agency look at that,” Landis-Marinello said.

He also says that nationally, Vermont is an outlier in the way it regulates dams. And the PUC has actually been in talks with ANR about making the switchover a reality.

“It’s more common for there to be one state agency that looks at dam safety, and there was a national report that came out just at the end of last year that is recommending that as a best practice. So, we have been in discussions with the Agency of Natural Resources about moving toward that type of model,” Landis-Marinello said.

Engineers with ANR’s dam safety team say the idea of having the agency take on the task is an interesting one, but not necessarily a priority.

PUC officials say legislation to change up the state’s dam regulatory process could be drafted as soon as January 2024.