Breached dam angers neighbors
State says public safety supersedes wildlife losses
AUSTINTOWN — Meridian Lake used to be a beautiful piece of property where people living along its banks made lasting memories.
Now there’s a muddy mess with fish flopping in its shallow remnants.
The dam was breached Oct. 26 and the lake drained in a matter of days. The breach was completed Nov. 5.
Back in 2016, the 9.63-acre parcel, also known as Woodside Lake since 1939, was put up for auction by the Mahoning County Auditor’s office and purchased by James Salter — for only $50.
“It was $50. You can’t go wrong,” Salter said at the time.
Things, however, quickly did.
When the property was purchased, the dam was already considered a hazard by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
Today, neighbors are upset about what’s left — and said there’s plenty of blame to go around.
“The county and ODNR knew there would be a mess like this and now there’s 35 homeowners on the lake who have to deal with the aftermath of this,” neighbor Paul Salupo said. “I think for Austintown it’s embarrassing. It’s embarrassing that the township and the county couldn’t figure out some way to save this.”
Wildlife died when the lake drained. It stinks, residents noted last week.
“Now we’ve got rotting wildlife and fish. You can smell it inside the houses and even on the street,” Salupo said. “I just can’t understand how anyone could come do it and not clean up the mess.”
Salupo also said during the breach, trees and other shrubbery were cut down and left in a pile. “They came in and took what is a very pretty and scenic backyard area and made a giant mess,” he said.
Some 30 houses surrounding the lake were valued at $200,000 or more, and the people now fear a drop in property values.
“I understand there are engineers who know a lot more about dams than I do. If they say the dam was a risk to those who live downstream, I totally understand, but the owner of the property should have been required to take care of that,” Salupo said.
Township Trustee Jim Davis said he and others in Austintown didn’t know what ODNR had planned.
ODNR spokeswoman Stephanie O’Grady, in an emailed statement on Friday, said: “Though the impact to wildlife would have been much worse if the dam had failed, ODNR Division of Wildlife anticipated an impact on aquatic life following the controlled dam breach. Losses such as these are often an unfortunate result of addressing public safety needs associated with failing dams. This agency provided a permit for a project-related fish die-off without liability to the dam owner, anticipating that not all fish would emigrate downstream through the breached dam. In this and similar cases, ODNR prioritizes public safety first, including that of public employees, and then conservation of fish and wildlife resources consistent with its mission.”
She also warned about venturing in to retrieve wildlife: “Shoreline areas around a recently breached dam are often hazardous due to the unstable nature of recently dewatered sediment, particularly during the hours, days, and even weeks following the dewatering of an aging reservoir. Traversing such areas or attempting to launch watercraft along their shore can put people in unexpected situations and serious jeopardy … ”
The dam owner, Salter, has since moved to Columbus. Attempts to reach Salter for comment by phone and social media were unsuccessful.
In 2018, two years after the lake was purchased, legal action was taken in Mahoning County Common Pleas Court by Ohio’s attorney general at the time, Mike DeWine, for failure to upkeep the property.
The filing states that Salter was given repeated warnings and his failure to address the unsafe conditions posed a threat to public safety. The document also states that the dam, if it failed, would likely cause flooding of a home and local roads downstream, primarily a portion of South Meridian Road between New Road and Kirk Road.
The dam was considered a Class II dam. According to the ODNR website, a Class II dam is a health hazard and flood waters could damage homes, businesses and industrial structures, among other things.
In September 2018, Mahoning County Common Pleas Judge Maureen Sweeney gave Salter until Oct. 15, 2019, to repair, breach or modify the dam. A year later, because nothing had been done, ODNR completed the dam breach in accordance with the court’s order.
In the interim, Austintown Township tried to intervene. Trustee Ken Carano said the trustees fought with ODNR.
“This is not something that happened overnight. We fought for the department to stop doing what they intended to do. It was almost impossible,” Carano said.
Fish and other wildlife still flopped about last week in the remaining water, which is slowly flowing down Ax Factory Run.
To lend a hand, some people are taking the remaining fish and placing them in their own ponds.
Some neighborhood residents tried to take the fish to Lake Glacier and other bodies of water in Mill Creek Park but were turned away, one of the neighbors said.
ODNR’s O’Grady said in her email: ” … relocation of any fishes to other water bodies was not advisable due to concerns regarding disease and parasite transmission. In fact, it is illegal for private individuals to stock or relocate fishes into public waters without a written permit from the Chief of the Division of Wildlife. These concerns are the reason that fish health testing is an integral and required part of programs that involve fish stocking in public waters…”
She also noted some damage done by the public: “Despite ODNR’s recommendations, the general public was invited to this site by a Facebook post and, without any safety warnings, immediately entered the dangerous conditions and removed nearly all of the remaining fish. In the process, damage was done to the private property of a local church that had been used for construction access to the dam, and had just been restored by ODNR at the completion of the project. When our heavy equipment and staff had to be remobilized and redeployed to repair this damage, they were confronted by members of the public who, while understandably worried about the remaining wildlife in the area, were not following COVID precautions, putting our employees at risk.”
Still, people from many corners of the Mahoning Valley wanted to get the wildlife to safety. Tammy Blandine of Newton Falls was among those on hand last week to help.
“I thought I should go and lend a hand to these people. It’s a good thing to do for the animals, and I’ve seen a lot of great teamwork out here. It’s amazing what I’ve seen out here the last few days,” Blandine said.
Matt Ditchey, who now lives in Greenford, grew up with the lake in his backyard and wanted to help in any way possible. Over four days, Ditchey said, hundreds of fish were saved. He said people have even reached out to him from Washington state and Texas wishing to donate.
Mark Palkovic, also at the site last week, lived in the neighborhood for more than 30 years and now lives in Boardman. He said he’s disappointed by how everything played out, but plans to help financially in the future any way he can.
Many of the neighbors would like to take ownership of the property and have hired an attorney to begin the process.