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Local volunteers, Fish & Wildlife wardens pull flood debris from Lake Whitingham

WILMINGTON—Water rolls downstream... and so does everything carried by its current.

Floodwaters from Tropical Storm Irene raged through Vermont towns on Aug. 28, carrying away propane tanks, cars, houses, and a few kitchen appliances.

In the Deerfield Valley, much of what the flood scooped up landed in the Harriman Reservoir, also known as Lake Whitingham.

“We’re Vermonters,” said lake volunteer Mark Pedersen, who spent six solid days of hauling debris from the lake with a pontoon boat. “This is how [the weather] goes. We shake it off.”

Efforts to “pluck” trash, like propane tanks, and debris, like trees, from Harriman started the day after the storm, he said.

Pedersen, who owns High County, a marina and snowmobile tour company on Route 9 outside downtown Wilmington, said he jumped right in clearing debris. “This is my town and we’re going to fix it ourselves,” he said. “We don’t have time to wait.”

Pedersen said he used his two rental pontoon boats to tow items from the lake to the shore where volunteers would haul the debris to Dumpsters or, if trees, further up the shoreline.

Pedersen pushed the trash and debris to shore with the help of two doors washed into Harriman fashioned to the pontoon as a makeshift plow.

According to Pedersen, the impromptu tugboats towed 17 propane tanks, two fuel tanks from the nearby gas companies, clothes, styrofoam, bits of plastic, and the roof and gable ends that once topped Ann Coleman’s gallery.

The flood had washed the gallery from its location on West Main Street in Wilmington.

According to Coleman, floodwaters picked up the 32-by-40-foot newly renovated building, which “took off like a boat with all its contents, very buoyant with all its newly blow-in insulation.”

Volunteers attached anchor lines to the roof and towed it to shore, securing the shingled island to trees, said Pedersen, who thinks it will take an excavator to remove the roof from the water.

The “coolest” find came on a Friday, said Pedersen, when the volunteers found what remained of Coleman’s sculpture, “The Vanishing Vermonster” by Dale Doucette.

The piece washed up about one mile from where the flood picked it up.

They found the statute’s base, he said — “just the shoes.”

According to Coleman, she bought the sculpture at the Mount Snow Area Chamber of Commerce fundraiser auction in October 2008 upon the encouragement of the late Jeff Fillion.

The sculpture had been inside the gallery during the flood.

Coleman said the gallery not only housed 35 of her originals and multiple prints spanning 33 years of her work, it also had work of jewelers Mary Marchese, Patricia Dorris, and Jennifer Johnson; painter Kim Jones, furnituremaker Rob Case, and fiber artist Cheryl Flett. The gallery also displayed a watercolor by Michael Degnon.

Pedersen said Coleman took photos and everyone had a good laugh.

“Where’s there’s laughter, there’s hope,” Pedersen said.

On Saturday, after Mount Snow’s decision to cancel its Brewers Festival left Marketing and Events Director Vinnie Lewis and other employees with an empty day in their schedule, about 20 folks from the resort made their way from Dover to help, said Pedersen.

Lewis and his crew mobilized dump trucks, food, and elbow grease. They spent the day hauling debris and cooking up a feast.

Pedersen said he and volunteers also used the pontoon boats to clear the reservoir’s 28 miles of shoreline.

The crew attached garbage cans to the boats’ rails and then, “like hitting the beach in Normandy,” they would jump on shore, load trash, jump back onto the boat, and travel farther down shore, “leapfrogging.”

Adam Levine, owner of The Valley View Saloon in Dover, drove four dump truckloads of trash to the dump, said Pedersen.

Hauling company, Triple T, emptied Pedersen’s business’ Dumpster three times for free, he said.

State Game Warden Richard Watkin of Wilmington spent four days last week pulling items from the water. Colleagues Sgt. Travis Buttle, of Shaftsbury, and Justin Stedman, of Pawlet, assisted him for two of the four days.

According to Watkin, the team prioritized hauling hazardous items from the water, with household trash a lesser priority.

The team pulled two partially full 1,000-gallon kerosene tanks from the water. One, said Watkin, had lodged on the shore, and the other sat in the water.

It took the team two hours to tow one tank, reeking of kerosene, four miles at 2.5 miles per hour, he said.

“Not pleasant,” said Watkin.

Other items pulled from the lake included several five-gallon gas containers, paint cans, household poisons like weed killer and rat poison, refrigerators, televisions, building frames, prescription medication, bottles of liquor, and a 55-gallon drum of creosote “spewing out” its contents.

A hazardous soup

According to the Molly Stark Byway’s website, the 2,200-acre reservoir comprises the largest body of water completely enclosed within Vermont’s borders.

The TransCanada-owned lake has 28 miles of coastline and is over 8 miles long. The Deerfield River feeds into the reservoir, which the New England Power Company dammed in 1923 by flooding a community called Mountain Mills.

“The map of Vermont has changed” because of the flooded rivers, said Dover Selectboard member Colby Dix, who calls the team of volunteers and officers from the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department “unsung heroes.”

Dix voiced concern for the reservoir post-Irene. He said he’s concerned about the potential amount of “hazardous effluent” that may have pooled in Lake Whitingham.

It’s not a good idea to swim there right now, he said.

According to Dix, the site is a year-round attraction for the area, providing a venue for boating and swimming in the summer and ice fishing in the winter.

Lake Whitingham isn’t the first reservoir to end up containing hazardous materials after a flood, said Dix, who feels the state, town, and volunteers have an opportunity to uses others’ experience to clean the lake quickly in a safe, environmentally conscious way.

Pedersen takes issue with some of what he describes as “less than educated” comments flying around social media sites like Facebook, pegging TransCanada as not taking enough action to drain the reservoir.

In Pedersen’s opinion, power company personnel prepared for the storm the best they could, and he believes that they did release as much water during the storm that their license allows.

Pedersen also praised TransCanada’s care and upkeep of the reservoir.

“No qualms on my part,” he said.

“Our thoughts are with those Vermonters, particularly on the North Branch, that suffered enormous property damage and are struggling to reorganize their lives and rebuild,” said TransCanada spokesperson Leanne LeBlanc.

According to LeBlanc, the lake’s recreation and boat launches owned and maintained by the power company will remain closed until a better health and safety assessment has occurred.

LeBlanc said the company is coordinating with state and federal agencies to “formulate how best to clean up Harriman and restore its recreational attractiveness.”

“Safeguarding the health and safety of the public, our employees, and our contractors throughout this process is paramount,” she added.

Watkin agreed.

“Use common sense whenever you go out on the water,” he advised.

“It’s a mine field,” he added, referring to the trash and debris inhabiting the lake.

The reservoir has not been closed to the public, said Watkin. He doesn’t anticipate that the state will issue such an order.

At this point, he said, the lake does not show signs of microbial contamination or severe pollution. For example, he hasn’t seen the “biological marker” red flag of dead fish.

Watkin said he hasn’t received word about any water testing by the state, TransCanada, or the town.

Still, the washed-in items can cause problems for people venturing onto the lake, he said. Coming into contact with toxic materials can put people’s health at risk while the floating and submerged debris can damage boats leaving people stranded.

Watkin also expressed concern about glass in the lake posing a threat to swimmers.

Cleaning the Harriman

Watkin anticipates the cleanup to take months, but he feels cautiously optimistic about the team culling most of the toxic debris.

As the water level in the reservoir changes over the year, he said, more items will surface.

The “mess is not good for wildlife,” he said, but it’s too early to know the flood’s full impact.

He said the two components to keep an eye on are runoff of both chemicals and soil, and manmade debris.

According to Watkin, the reservoir’s size will aid in diffusing the chemicals washed into the water.

Some people have suggested to Watkin that TransCanada drain the entire reservoir and pick out any debris.

“Imagine the impact on the aquatic life,” he said. “[Draining] would devastate the body as a fishery.”

Watkin anticipates instead mounting an organized volunteer campaign to pull items from the reservoir, which he calls “a fantastic body of water and a huge resource.”

Pedersen said his marina sailed through the tropical storm “unscathed.” He spent two days ahead of the weather battening down the hatches.

But his coffers will have a little less money in them. According to Pedersen, remaining closed over Labor Day weekend will cost him about $45,000 in business.

Pedersen’s wife, Wendy, and her sister also own the former restaurant Poncho’s Wreck in downtown Wilmington. The empty building’s basement flooded, but the other floors remained dry, he said.

Pedersen estimates the damage at $20,000 — not as bad as other downtown businesses, he said.

On Monday, he said he was in Connecticut, “taking a breather” and visiting family after.

“It’s gotten to me,” he said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #117 (Wednesday, September 7, 2011).

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