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Congress launches probe of Michigan, federal oversight of failed Midland dam

A U.S. House of Representatives committee is investigating the state and federal government’s oversight of a Midland-area dam that failed last month, causing flooding in mid-Michigan that forced more than 10,000 people to evacuate their homes.

The U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee sent letters to the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) on Monday, demanding answers within two weeks to detailed questions about their oversight of the Edenville Dam. 

The dam had been cited for non-compliance issues for nearly three decades by the time it failed amid heavy rains May 19. The failure cost millions of dollars in property damage but no one was killed.

“This inquiry is critical to ensuring this never happens again in any city in America with a high hazard dam,” U.S. Reps. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, and Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, said in a joint statement. 

“It is concerning there are serious gaps in existing laws and gathering the facts will be essential as we consider future bipartisan legislation to protect communities across the country.”

The inquiry comes after Bridge Magazine first reported the largest of the dams, the Edenville Dam, was cited for safety hazards with FERC regulations for years before its license to generate power was pulled in 2018.

The dam was then handed off to a three-person dam regulation team in EGLE, which had not demanded any design changes to the dam owner by the time it failed in May 2020. 

State officials contended they were awaiting a consultant’s report before taking action.

Among other issues, the House committee wants to know:

  • How Michigan viewed its obligation regarding the Edenville Dam once it came under its purview
  • The details of an October 2018 state inspection that deemed the dam to be in “fair structural condition,” despite years of FERC warnings
  • What has been done since January 2020, when Michigan inspectors reached a preliminary conclusion that it wouldn’t meet state design standards.

In a series of reports, Bridge has detailed how weak regulations were ineffective in compelling dam owners to make design changes to better withstand a flood.

“Current law has failures in it,” Dingell told Bridge. “It doesn’t allow these problems to be addressed, and we want to move quickly to understand where those gaps are and introduce legislation to address them.”

A similar inquiry to FERC, which regulates dams that produce hydroelectric power, questions the federal government’s actions on the dams and cites concerns that three other Midland-area dams — which are still owned by the non-compliant owner of the Edenville dam and regulated by the feds — “may present a similar threat to surrounding communities.”

Among other questions, the committee asks FERC why it allowed the company to operate such a dangerous dam without meeting federal safety requirements for more than 10 years.

“We look forward to working with the committee to better understand the circumstances surrounding the Midland-area dam failures, and to explore ways to address dam safety concerns in Michigan and nationally,” EGLE spokesperson Hugh McDiarmid wrote in an email to Bridge. 

A spokesperson for FERC did not immediately return a request for comment Tuesday. 

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer also has ordered EGLE to investigate the dam failure, which has raised concerns about conflicts of interest from Republicans, local homeowners and dam safety experts who spoke with Bridge. 

When she launched the investigation last week, Whitmer said this is “the procedure that would ordinarily be followed” and said it was important the inquiry be led by an agency “that has the expertise.” 

However, guidelines from the Association of State Dam Safety Officials, a national group that advocates for dam safety, said independent investigations are a fundamental part of dam failure response.

“Investigations have been seriously derailed due to public concerns” that investigators or their agency “had a stake in the outcome of the investigation,” the guidelines read.

Michigan Republicans have also called for Attorney General Dana Nessel to step down from any investigation into the failure as well, citing Bridge’s reporting on the state’s lawsuits against the dam owner for illegal lake drawdowns that allegedly endangered freshwater mussels. 

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