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Mass. OK’s bill to fund seawalls, dam work

Cities and towns in Massachusetts struggling to repair decrepit dams and aged seawalls got a belated holiday gift from state lawmakers, who in a rare New Year’s Eve session approved a bill to create a $17 million loan pool to help communities mend or remove these structures.

The legislation comes a year after a state auditor’s report identified 100 “high hazardous” dams in need of $60 million in repairs. An earlier report from the state Department of Conservation and Recreation identified $1 billion in needed repairs to 140 miles of seawalls meandering along the Bay State’s coast.

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“We recognized a great need for improvements to public dams and seawalls,” said atate Representative James Cantwell, a Democrat from Marshfield who first introduced a bill to repair seawalls. “I see this bill as an important step to address those needs.”

The bill calls for half the $17 million to be used for dam repair or removal, and the rest for coastal improvements, such as repairing seawalls and levies. The money will come from a defunct water abatement trust account, legislators said.

Environmental groups, which pushed for passage of the bill, said the legislation should improve the Bay State’s fragile ecosystem.

“The bill is fantastic for both the environment and public safety,” said Steve Long, director of government relations at The Nature Conservancy , a key backer of the legislation. “It was a priority for us, because it allows for the removal of unnecessary dams. . . . They’re impeding the flow of water, which impacts the quality of water for both people and fish.”

The bill now heads to Governor Deval Patrick, who has 10 days from its passage to approve or veto it. If he takes no action, the bill would become law. An administration spokeswoman said Tuesday that the governor may take all 10 days to review it. “We haven’t previously taken a position as this has made its way through the Legislature,” spokeswoman Kim Haberlin said in a telephone interview.

‘$17 million is not nearly enough to address the need that is out there. There’s got to be a way to prioritize the most dangerous dams that need to be addressed.’

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With communities facing millions of dollars in infrastructure repairs, one legislator acknowledged the loan pool would not go very far. “$17 million is not nearly enough to address the need that is out there,” said Senator Mark Pacheco, a Taunton Democrat and the Senate chairman of the Joint Committee on the Environment, Natural Resources, and Agriculture. “There’s got to be a way to prioritize the most dangerous dams that need to be addressed.”

Other provisions of the bill, such as one allowing communities to sell municipal bonds to remove a dam, should be of help. The bill also requires the state to keep a list of the most distressed dams, and allows the state Department of Conservation and Recreation to fine dam owners or operators up to $5,000 for failure to keep their dam in good condition, Pacheco noted. “A lot of these dams are on private land, and some are on municipal property,” he said. “We tried to get all of those issues addressed in this.”

Taunton, which Pacheco has represented for 24 years, is among the old mill towns with many failing dams. In 2005, the Whittenton Pond dam, and the Morey’s Bridge dam nearly failed, prompting evacuations in the south coast city. The Whittenton Pond dam was eventually removed. A $4.3 million project to rebuild Morey’s Bridge, and the dam beneath it, is ongoing, but the city has other dams in need of repair, Mayor Thomas Hoye Jr. said.

“This money has been a long time coming,” Hoye said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “I know other areas of the state, not just Taunton, have these problems. It’s a matter of public safety.”

Kathy McCabe can be reached at KMcCabe@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKMcCabe
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