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Powerhouse site below Middlebury falls to be studied

MIDDLEBURY — The Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) will come up with funding for an environmental assessment of the historic powerhouse site just below and to the north of Middlebury’s Otter Creek Falls. This comes in the wake of concerns the property might harbor some contamination as a result of industries that operated there during the 19th century.
Middlebury Town Manager Kathleen Ramsay said the town would be able to apply for additional state and federal funds to clean up any contamination that might be found on the property.
The powerhouse site was previously home to a cotton sheeting and yarn operation. Wool was carded there from 1811-1822, according to town archives. The Cutter Marble Factory ran there from 1882-1885, and a box factory operated circa 1885. The mill, gashouse, gasholder, along with 13 other buildings in the town’s business district were destroyed by a massive fire on Nov. 22, 1891.
The remnants of the mill were re-purposed after the fire to serve as the wheelhouse for the nearby Brandon Italian Marble Works from 1898-1909. It continued to serve as the wheelhouse for the nearby Vermont Marble Co. from 1909-1931. Central Vermont Public Service Corp. owned the site from 1938-1975. The Middlebury Area Land Trust conveyed the site to the town of Middlebury in 2012. The town set aside $20,300 in conservation funds to stabilize the property, which hosts the four deteriorating walls of the old powerhouse.
A member of the town’s powerhouse committee raised questions about possible site contamination, which led to the town’s application to the DEC for funds for a brownfields study. Ramsay last week said she was pleased the DEC has agreed to provide the necessary funds.
“We purchased this (property) obviously not anticipating this type of difficulty,” Ramsay said, adding “the key to receiving funding is a requirement that you didn’t know about the contamination when you acquired it.”
The DEC will now contract with a firm to perform the study, according to Ramsay. It is too soon to tell how much the study will cost and how long it will take, she added.
Once the findings are in, the town will turn its attention to cleaning up the site. And once that is accomplished, the community will take another look at the powerhouse structure — namely, the extent to which it should be repaired. Middlebury got a sense of its options last fall, with the release of a powerhouse report prepared by Knight Consulting Engineers Inc. The report lays out several options to safeguard the old powerhouse, ranging from removing vegetation within it for around $10,000, to disassembling and reconstructing the walls at a potential cost of $500,000. Adopting most of the options within the report could produce a project costing almost $1 million.
The town has to this point spent $3,400 to place a fence around the powerhouse property to keep people from going into the fragile structure and potentially getting injured.
“The Knight report was the first step in identifying what might be done there,” Ramsay said of a process that will likely take years to complete.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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