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Safety measures lacking at dam near former Hagerstown light plant

July 18, 2010|By KATE S. ALEXANDER
  • A new "no swimming" sign was recently posted on a tree across the creek from the old Municipal Electric Light Plant in Hagerstown.
Joe Crocetta, Staff Photographer

A year after a teenager nearly drowned at an Antietam Creek dam behind the old city light plant, little has been done to deter people from venturing into the turbulent waters.

Signs warning of danger were installed on each end of the dam last year, the only safety measure that was taken, City Engineer Rodney Tissue said.

And until recently, at least one of those signs was missing.

"I went out there ... and the sign was gone," Mike Weller, fire safety educator for the Hagerstown Fire Department, said earlier this month.

The area of the dam behind the former Municipal Electric Light Plant off Mount Aetna Road sometimes draws people to fish or swim.

Last summer, a 15-year-old girl had to be rescued from the turbulent waters at the dam's base, where the water can churn like in a washing machine.

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The 2009 incident prompted city emergency services officials to host a press conference at the dam, where they used the experience of the teenager to remind the public about water safety and the dangers of dams.

It also prompted city and state officials to meet with the property owner to discuss ways to mitigate danger at the dam.

Last July, The Herald-Mail reported that the discussion included suggestions for the city to install signs and put up fences that would block access to the dam and the property owner dismantling the dam.

In the end, money, or lack of it, limited what the city was able to do.

A year later, the only change at the dam was the installation of two signs warning of currents at the dam's base, but a check earlier this month revealed the sign on the east bank of the creek was missing.

"The city put up signage warning it was a hazardous area, but there was no fencing," Weller said. "We did not have the resources because of the difficult economic time."

The signs, on metal poles placed deep in the ground, warned, "Danger. No swimming or wading. Dangerous currents."

A small, steep path leads from Mount Aetna Road along the creek's east bank.

The west bank of the creek is blocked by dense foliage.

It is possible, but unlikely, that floodwaters washed the sign from the east bank, Weller said.

The sign on the east bank most likely was intentionally removed, Tissue said.

"It would not be the first time a city sign disappeared," he said.

On July 13, the city bolted a new sign to a tree on the east bank, Tissue said, a week after officials first talked with The Herald-Mail.

Only common sense and a small bit of old fencing now help the signs deter people from going onto the dam or into the water, Weller said.

The small fence, approximately 3 feet wide and 6 feet tall, is covered with vines, driftwood and trash, and appears to have been in place for some time.

"That has been there as long as I can remember, probably 25 or 30 years," Weller said. "I bet pieces of it have washed away."

The state was under the impression more fencing is at the site.

"I checked into it and the long and short of it is ... as we understand it, there was a fence installed on the left abutment," said Jay Apperson, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE).

The dam's owner, H.D. Thompson of Partners Marketing LLP in Staunton, Va., also thought additional fencing had been erected at the dam.

"All requested steps were taken," Thompson said. "They did put in a fence as far as I know."

Just as no additional fence was put on the site, nothing was done to remove the dam, Weller said.

MDE and Maryland Department of Natural Resources officials said in 2009 that removing the dam or breaching it would improve public safety.

An MDE spokeswoman said at the time that the state was encouraged to take on the project and work with the city and the property owner.

Apperson said last week that the property owner would need to initiate removal of the dam, but that so far he has not contacted MDE about doing so.

"I have no intention of taking it out," Thompson said.

Even if removing the dam isn't being considered, a fence could be installed, Weller said.

Weller said the city has not abandoned the idea should money become available.

"I am going to try again to make that happen," he said.

Over the years, the dam has claimed lives.

In 2008, a Frederick, Md., man who had been fishing above the dam died after jumping into the water to save his dog, according to newspaper reports.

The body of a 33-year-old man also was found near the top of the dam in May 2001.

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