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River rescue raises dam awareness

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HEUVELTON — The rescue of a pair Heuvelton teens trapped in the waters of the Oswegatchie River earlier this week has caused a community to demand better safety measures.

When Michael G. Bell, 17, and Brandon A. Parameter, 16, found themselves waste deep in the river Sunday after the Brookfield Renewable Energy Group’s dam released water, they said they didn’t know what hit them.

The two boys fish under the Heuvelton Bridge, which is downstream from the dam, on a daily basis. When the Brookfield dam released water, they found themselves wondering if anyone would find them and if they would make it out unharmed.

“It scared us at first, not knowing how long we were going to be in the water before anyone knew we were there,” Bell said.

He said they had been in the waters, secured against a large rock, for a half hour awaiting help. They were eventually rescued by the Heuvelton Volunteer Fire Department. The family does not know who called 9-1-1 to initiate the rescue.

“We fish down there all the time and this has never happened to us before,” Parmeter said.

Scattered on either side of the Heuvelton Bridge are signs for “no swimming” and danger signs for “fast rising water stay out of the river bed,” but those signs weren’t there prior to Sunday’s rescue according the boys and Parmeter’s mother Laura M. Parmeter.

Mrs. Parmeter said that the Monday following the incident, Brookfield employees put up new signs while wrapping signs that warned of “Danger: Vacate river bed if warning siren sounds or warning light is flashing” in blue tarps and silver duct tape.

But there were never sirens, they said, and signs aren’t enough.

“To me it is a safety factor, obviously,” Mrs. Parmeter said. “It’s disappointing because there is a system and obviously it is malfunctioned and then covering the signs, there is something wrong,”

If Brookfield is going to post a sign that says there is going to be a warning, there should be a warning, Mrs. Parmeter and the boys agreed.

Bell furthered that the sirens, if they went off at all, only went off during emergencies, in which case, the amount of water released from the dam would be so great that the sounding of a siren would be useless if you were on the banks.

Brookfield Regional Supervisor John Gamble said currently there are no alarms installed at the dam and the signs posted for the alerting of sirens were a precursor to a program being installed that is expected to be put into service in the next two weeks.

The signs have been covered to avoid any future confusion until the alarms are installed, Mr. Gamble said.

Had those alarms been instituted before Sunday’s incident, Mr. Gamble said they wouldn’t have gone off anyway, as it would only have been used in emergency situations.

“This was the normal ebb and flow of the river,” Mr. Gamble said. “It’s the way that dam has operated for the last 20 years. Nothing has changed. On that particular day, the timing was just not good.”

The pond behind the dam is constantly being monitored by the dam’s generator. The two large rubberized bags that are part of the dam deflate as it becomes filled with river water to keep the pond at a consistent level.

“At that point it was at its maximum flow,” Mr. Gamble said. “There is nothing that didn’t happen here that didn’t take 20 minutes to a half an hour to take place, easily.”

Had the boys waited another 15 minutes, the water would have been at a level in which they would have been able to walk back to shore safely, Mr. Gamble said.

But this specific incident has caused Brookfield to re-evaluate their thinking on how the new system is going to operate, but relying less on the rubberized bags, Mr. Gamble said.

“We are certainly looking for a resolution even though we haven’t had a problem in over 20 years,” Mr. Gamble said.

Heuvelton 1st Assistant Fire Chief Nick Friot said calls like this are out of the ordinary for the fire department.

“This hasn’t been a problem in recent history, at least not in the last 10 years,” Mr. Friot said.

The water, when released from the village’s hydroelectric dam, is done slowly enough to allow individuals who are mindful, ample time to get out of the way of increased currents, Mr. Friot added.

But Bell said it was only a matter of seconds from their noticing the water rising that it went from ankle-deep to waste-deep.

“I’m surprised that we didn’t lose more than a pair of glasses, a shoe and the fish we caught,” Bell said.

Standing on the banks of the Oswegatchie Friday, the boys pointed to the concrete pillar, or pier, where they were fishing.

The currents, while substantial on Friday, were nothing compared to what the boys said they were up against when they found themselves trapped.

“As a parent this is frightening, not only for my kids but for other people’s kids,” Mrs. Parmeter said. “This is what they do. Fishing is their outlet and now parents have this to worry about.”

Zev Korman, the vice president, investor relations of Brookfield Renewable Energy Group, said the company takes situations like this and their commitment to safety very seriously.

“I understand the teenagers in question who were fishing were doing so from a location downstream from the dam,” Mr. Korman said in an email to Johnson Newspapers Wednesday. “We maintain signage in the immediate area alerting people to the potential danger and the possibility of rapid changes in water levels, and we’re in the process of installing additional signage to emphasize this even further.”

While there is signage posted on the dam itself, in the area where the boys were fishing, no such warnings were posted, since the bridge is not Brookfield’s property.

The exact operating protocol for the system is currently being determined, Mr. Korman said.

Mrs. Parmeter and the boys said Brookfield should have a siren installed that will sound whenever water is released from the dam, not just in cases of emergencies.

Mr. Gamble said that would probably not go over well with residents living near the dam as water is released often.

“My son always, always pays attention and is always alert because he knows how dangerous it is down there, Mrs. Parmeter said while standing with the boys as she looked over the shore where they were pulled to safety. “I just have to say that you two were very lucky. Lucky, lucky, lucky.”

But while all these safety precautions are being instituted, the best precaution is awareness, said St. Lawrence County Undersheriff Scott F. Bonno.

The undersheriff said he knows that there is signage usually surrounding the base of the dams scattered throughout St. Lawrence County which could be a contributing factor that the sheriff’s office hasn’t had to be called out to incidents like this.

“This is a rarity. I can’t think of the last time something like this happened,” Undersheriff Bonno said. “The obvious thing, no matter what you are doing, is to be mindful of your surroundings.”

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