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Town of Jay, Essex Co. seek help with Irene debris cleanup

July 6, 2012

Officials from the town of Jay and Essex County want the Federal Emergency Management Agency to pay for debris cleanup along the shores of the AuSable River.

But so far, FEMA hasn't budged because the debris piles don't constitute a public safety risk, according to Jay town Supervisor Randy Douglas.

"We're trying a lot of different options," Douglas said. "Hopefully, FEMA has a change of heart on the issue, because it's a huge financial issue to all of us - in the town of Keene and the town of Jay especially - and on our private property owners. They've got debris that has washed downstream that they can't afford to remove."

Last week, Douglas and Essex County Community Resources Director Mike Mascarenas met with Phil Parr of FEMA, as well as state emergency officials, to tour property near the Land of Makebelieve in Upper Jay. There, they inspected huge piles of debris scattered up and down the banks of the East Branch of the AuSable River.

The town has borrowed about $3 million since Irene hit on Aug. 28, 2011. Douglas said the town can't afford another loan to clean up debris.

Mascarenas said Parr was "99.9 percent sure" that FEMA wouldn't cover the costs of removing the debris because it doesn't present an immediate health or safety threat to town residents. He said Parr plans to review a report by the Army Corps of Engineers before a final determination is made.

Douglas and Mascarenas argued that the debris does pose a risk to public safety.

"If we get a big event like Irene again, then yeah, those piles are going down the river - there's no doubt about that," Mascarenas said, "and then we're going to have issues with infrastructure that's built downriver.

"But smaller events, now what it's going to do is bring in more debris, which is going to get hung up on the existing debris that's there and cause a problem forever," he added. "So in my opinion, it does need to be gone through; it does need to get out of the flood plain."

Douglas noted that the state and federal government invested millions of dollars in two bridges downstream of those debris piles: the Jay Covered Bridge and the Emergency Services Memorial Bridge. He said it would make sense for FEMA to help protect those assets.

Douglas said there have been instances in other counties and states where FEMA helped pay for debris removal on private property.

"One way or another, it needs to get done," he said. "Financially the town can't do the burden right now; that's the issue in a nutshell. And FEMA's got to come through for us."

Earlier this year, Empire State Development and the state Department of Environmental Conservation made $9 million available to counties through the Flood Mitigation Grant Program "to reduce potential threats to public and private infrastructure," according to a press release on the DEC's website. The funds can be used for stream debris removal, DEC officials said.

The town of Jay has applied for a $500,000 grant through that program, and Douglas said he's hopeful the grant will be approved.



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