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    Red Bridge Hydro collapse explained to Wilbraham Select Board

    September 21, 2023 - Sarah Heinonen


      WILBRAHAM — The owners and operators of the Red Bridge Hydro, a hydroelectric power plant at 5 Red Bridge Rd., came before the Select Board on Sept. 11 to discuss the fire and partial collapse of the facility on Aug. 21.

      John Robichaud of Patriot Hydro, parent company of Red Bridge Hydro owner LS Power, said that at 9 a.m. a fire was discovered at the facility. He praised the Wilbraham Fire Department, which responded to the scene five minutes later. A portion of the 1901 building had collapsed into the channel that leads water away from the plant, called a tailrace.

      The cause of the collapse has not yet been determined. An investigation into the cause of the collapse is underway and the next steps involve erecting a semi-permanent dam so that the water can be drained from the tailrace and ruble from the building extracted.

      Long term, the building will be rebuilt or replaced. Either way, Robichaud said the power plant will be operational again. Select Board Chair Theresa Goodrich said the facility will need to be maintained if it goes into operation again. The facility produces 4.5 megawatts of electricity and feeds it into the electrical grid.

      Goodrich said several sources had reported seeing an oil sheen in the water. She asked about contamination in the water. Robichaud said it is believed that a service breaker containing 10 gallons of mineral oil was part of the equipment that fell into the water. Testing has confirmed that the substance is mineral oil. The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection deployed booms to contain most, if not all, of the oil, he said. The mineral oil cleanup will be part of the drainage and evaluation.

      Robichaud emphasized that rumors of an oil drum falling into the water were not true. All drums have been accounted for, he said.

      Goodrich asked if any hazardous materials had gone into the river. Skip Medford of LS Power said the 122-year-old building may have contained asbestos. MassDEP is working with LS Power to "remedy" this by treating all materials as though they contain asbestos.

      Luke Wright, owner of Ware River Power, which operates Red Bridge Hydro, told the board that the building's units were shut down at the time of the collapse, limiting the water flowing through the system. He explained that the river is backing up into the tailrace, rather than any materials from the tailrace flowing into the river.

      Goodrich cautioned Robichaud, Medford and Wright that Wilbraham is "very environmentally minded." She added, "There are a lot of eyes on you and your work."

      Memorial School study

      Town Administrator Nick Breault reported that the Finance Committee had reviewed the findings of the study that explored turning Memorial School into a recreation center that would house the Recreation Department offices, several sports facilities and space for classes and activities. The main takeaway from the Finance Committee was that there was no desire for the town to take on more expensive projects, Breault said. The town is in the middle of constructing a $13.44 million Senior Center.

      Breault asked about the timeline for a decision on the future of the building and the location of the pickleball courts once the town no longer rents space from the Scantic Valley YMCA for the Senior Center, where the department is currently located. He also asked about the possibility of locating the pickleball courts proposed for the recreation center at Spec Pond. He suggested the recreation center could be proposed later, independent of the pickleball courts.

      Goodrich agreed that it should be considered, especially because Community Preservation Act funding was approved at Town Meeting in 2021 and again this spring, after it was not used in 2021. She said more pickleball courts or another activity could replace the pickleball courts in the proposed design.

      Select Board member Susan Bunnell said that unless the town is going to sell Memorial School, the courts should be placed there in anticipation of a recreation complex. Fellow Select Board member Michael Squindo agreed. Goodrich was hesitant and said there was a chance the rec center would not be built there, and the site could be sold.

      Squindo suggested more Community Preservation Act funding could be used for the courts, while Bunnell suggested Green Community funding could be used for portions of the project. Squindo said a decision will need to be made in the next few months.


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