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Private dam that leaked, prompted evacuation along swollen Yantic River, was out of compliance

DOT, DEEP, and local emergency officials gather at the Fitchville Pond Dam on the Yantic River in Bozrah, Connecticut after flooding impacted neighborhoods along the river.
Ryan Caron King
Connecticut Public
DOT, DEEP, and local emergency officials gather at the Fitchville Pond Dam, January 11, 2024.

Business owners were still cleaning up in Norwich Thursday afternoon after the area saw flooding in low-lying areas near the Yantic River on Wednesday.

“It was raging. I had never seen it that bad before,” said Dayne Rugh, president of a local history organization called The Society of the Founders of Norwich.

Rugh said an historic house museum next to the river was spared. The Leffingwell House was built about 1675 by one of the founding families of Norwich.

“The water at the highest point, almost reached the parking area, but it didn't get any higher than that,” Rugh said. “ It would have to be some pretty catastrophic flooding to get to the house.”

He counts himself lucky.

“It is intimidating. It is really intimidating seeing mother nature in action. She tends to get her way,” Rugh said.

While Rugh’s museum was spared, others were not so lucky.

Keith Santor was captured in a now-viral photo while sitting on a table in a flooded Domino’s Pizza overlooking the swollen river. He was trapped by the floodwaters and rescued by boat.

“There was strong current whipping through the parking lot. That wouldn't have been passable. The water temperature was so cold as it was,” Santor said of the Wednesday morning ordeal. “We were cold inside the building, so if we had gone out submerging in waist deep water -- and deeper as the parking lot gets lower -- it would have been a disaster.”

Santor and his wife own Busy Bees Play Hive, a children's party location in the same building as the Domino’s. Santor had been working with the landlord to try to set up pumps and put out sandbags before the water got so high, he and the landlord had to be rescued.

State officials blamed flooding in the area on large amounts of rain and snow melt, but reported damage at a nearby dam heightened the emergency response, over fears of a potentially fatal flooding event.

"The leak from this dam has not caused any serious flooding. We were concerned that if it were to fail, that would have been a flooding emergency,” Chuck Lee assistant director of dam safety programs at the state's environmental agency told reporters on Wednesday.

The owner of the dam whose partial break led to an evacuation of parts of Bozrah on Wednesday was out of compliance with inspection and emergency preparedness requirements, according to state officials.

A list of enforcement actions provided to Connecticut Public by the state’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, or DEEP, shows the dam’s owner, Bozrah Water Works Inc., had not developed an emergency action plan as statutorily required for dams deemed “high hazard.”

DEEP records also show the owner had not responded to violation notices dating as far back as 2014 regarding a lack of inspection reports. As of 2014, state statute requires owners of privately owned high-hazard dams to hire professional engineers to conduct an inspection and submit an inspection report every two years.

“Due to the Respondent’s ongoing failure to respond to the above Notices, on September 3, 2021, at DEEP’s request, a professional engineer performed an emergency inspection of the Dam,” which found the dam in “poor condition,” according to the records. DEEP hired a private engineering firm to conduct a second inspection in 2022.

Attempts by Connecticut Public to reach Bozrah Water Works owner Seymour Adelman were unsuccessful Thursday.

Andrew Fisk, Northeast regional director for national nonprofit American Rivers, said the state should crack down on out-of-compliance dam owners.

“This is not punitive, but there has to be consequences for things that could have killed people,” Fisk said.

DEEP Commissioner Katie Dykes told reporters Wednesday that after the immediate emergency response, the agency would pursue “enforcement or recovery from the owner of the dam.”

“If state government really leans in and does its job, okay, they’re going to give these facilities some type of fine, some type of action,” Fisk said. “So let’s not just continue year after year after year saying ‘You’re out of compliance, you’re out of compliance, you’re out of compliance.’”

The partial break of the Fitchville Pond Dam early Wednesday morning prompted the evacuation of hundreds of residents, with officials warning of “catastrophic” damage and potential loss of life should the dam fail. The evacuation order was lifted Wednesday after officials said conditions had stabilized, but state and local officials were expected to be working into Friday on building a cofferdam, an impromptu back-up dam, to prevent potential future damage.

On Thursday, DEEP officials said the emergency response at the dam was going well so far, but that residents should be on alert as more rain moves in this weekend.

“The water level on the Yantic has gone down, it’s taking the pressure off the leaks that occurred yesterday,” said Lee from DEEP. “So the dam is not leaking as it was yesterday, and so we feel it’s a much safer situation, it’s a situation that’s much more under control.”

Lee said teams would continue to monitor the dam over the coming days.

Matt Dwyer contributed to this report.

Chris Polansky joined Connecticut Public in March 2023 as a general assignment and breaking news reporter based in Hartford. Previously, he’s worked at Utah Public Radio in Logan, Utah, as a general assignment reporter; Lehigh Valley Public Media in Bethlehem, Pa., as an anchor and producer for All Things Considered; and at Public Radio Tulsa in Tulsa, Okla., where he both reported and hosted Morning Edition.