No investigation planned in Hinckley water woes

Elizabeth Cooper

Gov. David Paterson has signed off on steps to protect Hinckley Reservoir’s water supply, but some Mohawk Valley officials still want answers about just how things went so wrong last summer.

It doesn’t look like they’ll get them.

Oneida County Executive Anthony Picente said he wants to know why Hinckley Reservoir was drawn down so low last summer that he had to call a state of emergency. It drained to within 3 feet of disrupting the area’s water supply.

No state agency is planning to delve further into just who was at fault, however.

The governor’s reservoir working group released its report at the end of April. It gave recommendations on how to avoid such problems in the future but did not hold anyone accountable.

That’s not good enough, Picente said.

“We had disagreed in terms of what we felt was the major questions that were not answered as part of that,” Picente said of the working group. “I did provide a dissenting opinion, which I feel very strongly about, and I still believe we should get the answers.”

Paterson’s office said it wouldn’t consider any investigation until the public had commented on the working group’s recommendations.

In backing seven of the group’s 10 recommendations last week, Paterson gave no indication such an investigation is planned.

Assemblywoman RoAnn Destito, D-Rome, and Dwight Evans, chief of staff for state Sen. Joseph A. Griffo, R-Rome, said no hearings are planned.

Assembly and Senate hearings are used to develop legislation to address a problem, not to investigate criminal matters or mismanagement, Evans said.

The state Inspector General’s office, which investigates possible wrongdoing or misconduct by state employees, has not received any complaints about the Hinckley situation, spokeswoman Kate Gurnett said.

Picente said depending on what the governor decides to do, he may file his own complaint with the Inspector General.

“If there is an unsatisfactory response, then I don’t have a problem contacting the inspector general and saying, ‘OK we still didn’t get our answers,’” he said.

The state Attorney General’s Office and the state Thruway Authority, which oversees the Canal Corp., declined comment based on an ongoing lawsuit between Canal Corp. and the Mohawk Valley Water Authority.

Canal Corp. referred questions to the Thruway Authority. Department of Environmental Conservation Regional Director Judith Drabicki said she didn’t believe such an investigation would fall under the department’s jurisdiction.

“I wouldn’t see DEC on its own commencing an investigation,” Drabicki said. “There were not environmental laws broken, and that’s where we would generally start an investigation.”

Mohawk Valley Water Authority Executive Director Patrick Becher said he would like to better understand what happened, but, “at this point in time, what’s more important is looking ahead to be sure it never happens again.”

In summer 2007, Hinckley Reservoir, which supplies water for 130,000 Utica-area customers, drained to within three feet of disrupting the water supply. The low reservoir level also impacted power generation capacity. Unanswered questions posed by local leaders and some residents:

- What effect, if any, did the lawsuit between the Mohawk Valley Water Authority and the Canal Corp. have on the events of last summer? The water authority wants to get more water from Hinckley, but Canal Corp. owns the reservoir and says there isn’t enough water to go around.

- Why were canals apparently brimming even as Hinckley got lower and lower?

Drabicki said the working group had tried to get to the bottom of what happened, but it hadn’t always been easy.

“We did very much endeavor to get the facts as straight as we could,” she said. “Needless to say, the two entities (Canal Corp. and the water authority) didn’t always view things the same way. The detail that’s in there was as detailed as we could all agree to.”

Griffo and Destito are working on bills that would increase accountability for the authorities operating in the state.

Herkimer County Administrator James Wallace said it wasn’t likely a thorough investigation could happen until the lawsuit between Canal Corp. and the Mohawk Valley Water Authority was resolved. But, he said, it was natural for people to wonder when they weren’t provided a clear explanation.

“When someone doesn’t offer a reason for what happened, you start to wonder,” he said. “Were there some good reasons why that happened? Were there some real reasons? If its no, then what the heck happened?”