Dangerous Dam in Medford May Finally Be Fixed

Centennial Lake in Medford

A hazardous Medford dam, with the potential to cause loss of life and significant property damage if it is breached, is finally on the road to being repaired, decades after it was cited as unsafe.  There are at least 40 homes downstream, surrounding Taunton Lake, that could be affected.

In 1979, the state Department of Environmental Protection cited the Centennial Lake Dam as being unsafe and ordered repairs. The U.S. Corps of Army Engineers also found deficiencies.  An earthen dam created Centennial Lake, located near an upscale wooded development, but its spillway is inadequate, DEP says.  Centennial Lake,  which has been lowered to reduce the flood risk, has been used for swimming and boating.

Year after year, the DEP demanded inspections, an "Emergency Action Plan" and repairs.  

But litigation and appeals have bogged down the process.  The concept of a potential "emergency" got lost in the shuffle. 

Luckily, when 17 dams in the Medford, Marlton and Lumberton area burst in 2004, this lake was not among them.  Triggered by torrential rains, the dam failures led to the evacuation of 800 people and caused more than $50 million in damage.  Lawsuits in recent years settled for more than $11 million.

Since then, the DEP has stepped up its enforcement under the Safe Dam Act.  Joseph Samost, a prominent developer in his 80s who owned the Centennial Lake Dam in Medford and the Kenilworth Dam in Evesham was sued for failing to maintain the dams.  The Kenilworth Dam had overflowed in 2004.  

After several court orders, Samost finally agreed to rebuild that dam, at a cost estimated at more than $634,000.  It is under construction. 

 J. Llewellyn Mathews, a court-appointed receiver for the Centennial Lake Dam, then asked Samost to contribute $41,000 to do engineering studies for Medford dam, but Samost refused.

Samost claimed he was insolvent, saying he had given away all his assets and money to family for estate planning and tax purposes.   Mathews said Samost then threatened he would spend $100,000 to sue him "personally," and would challenge his law license. 

Judge Karen L. Suter was informed of this threat and said in a written opinion issued on July 3 that this is more than double the amount Samost needed to pay his share of the engineering costs.  She said he had an obligation to pay for the dam repairs and  warned she would jail him if he didn't deposit the money with the receiver by 4 p.m. July 15. She said other courts had examined his finances and found he is capable of paying his obligations. 

He appealed and lost.  

It came down to the wire, but that afternoon, Samost came up with the money.