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Oxoboxo Lake temporarily dry to repair dam

Montville — Smelling of mud and marsh, and with docks sitting atop land rather than floating in water, Oxoboxo Lake looks dry these days because of a drawdown executed to repair a dam on its southern end.

WestRock, an Atlanta-based packaging company, owns the lake bed, making it responsible for the maintenance of the dam. Ivonne Hall, the supervisor of the dam safety program at the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, explained the nature of the project. Repair plans could affect watercourses associated with Oxoboxo Lake and Oxoboxo Brook.

“The dam’s spillway, which allows the water to pass through when it rains, is being upgraded. There’s a certain amount of water dams allow to safely pass without overtopping,” Hall said. “In the case of a high-hazard dam, it’s a drinking water supply, and there could be residences downstream that if the water were to be released during a big storm event, people would potentially have to be evacuated.”

After the spring of 2021, when the project is scheduled to be complete, the lake will begin to refill, Town Planner Marcia Vlaun said. The drawdown and repair process began in September, and as it went on, some nearby residents noticed lower water levels in their wells, Vlaun said. She said to contact WestRock employee Matthew Wells by phone at (804) 444-7070 or by email at enviro@westrock.com if people have this problem.

“Although there have been public notices coming out for years, it still comes as a shock. It looks very naked. It’s pretty startling,” Vlaun said. “We understand a few wells have gone dry, and it’s hard to know whether that’s because of the drought or this. But residents with shallow wells should call Matthew Wells.”

Hall, who said the dam repair is a “very important project,” outlined a well contingency plan submitted by WestRock that DEEP reviewed before the start of the undertaking.

“We are aware there are a lot of drinking water wells around the lake that are pretty shallow, which could be impacted by the drawdown,” Hall said. “We anticipated this would be an issue, so if the homeowner reaches out to WestRock, they can apply for replacement water.”

WestRock spokesperson Courtney James encouraged anyone with a question about the project or a particular well to email enviro@westrock.com. She said the company has been engaged with Mayor Ron McDaniel, local organizations and other community members for more than a year about the project, and its permit was granted after public notice and comment.

“We’re taking this important public safety action in an effort to make needed repairs to the dam, as it is an engineered structure that requires periodic maintenance, just like roads or bridges. The project is currently on track,” James wrote in an email. “We are implementing the repair project as an important public safety action to ensure the Dam remains in good condition and is safe to operate.”

The existing project schedule includes two phases, one in fall 2020 and the second in spring 2021.

“At this time, WestRock cannot reliably estimate when Oxoboxo Lake will return to normal levels following phase two as the refill rate will be entirely dependent upon precipitation rates in the late spring and early summer,” James wrote.

She noted that the company doesn’t have specific plans for the lake bed.

In 2018, WestRock applied for a construction permit and water quality certification through DEEP. Department inspections prior to the permit application determined the dam’s spillway did not meet state regulations.

WestRock formerly owned the corrugated cardboard packaging plant at 125 Depot Road along the Thames River. Commercial Development Co. Inc., based in St. Louis, purchased the property this year, releasing WestRock from environmental liabilities.

According to a news release, Commercial Development Co. “will be evaluating the market and meeting with local economic development leaders to identify end users who could benefit from the site’s unique industrial infrastructure, which includes prime access to shipping routes and on-site rail.”

The former plant is in the process of being demolished as part of Commercial Development Co.’s redevelopment plan, which involves environmental remediation. James said there is no connection between the dam project and demolition activities at the former mill property.

The dam has been raised and rebuilt several times. Montville's 2010 Conservation and Development Plan says the damming of the Oxoboxo River dates to the 1880s, when the river "provided waterpower for 15 cotton, woolen, and paper mills."

Vlaun, who grew up in New London and has been the Montville town planner for more than 30 years, recalled the many mills of the Oxoboxo Valley.

“Decades ago, woolen mills, paper mills, fabric mills used to be located all the way down through the Oxoboxo Valley, which runs from the Oxoboxo Lake,” she said.

s.spinella@theday.com

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