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

Edenville Dam had been cited for non-compliance issues for nearly three decades by the time it failed amid heavy rains May 19. (Bridge file photo by Dale Young)

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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Comments

Barry Visel
Tue, 06/02/2020 - 4:42pm

It doesn’t appear to be a failure of regulation...FERC and the State appear to have known about the problems. Rather, it appears to be a failure of enforcement...which , of course, boils down to money, and who pays. I wonder how a Congressional investigation will address that? (Yet another infrastructure issue with no vision for ongoing maintenance and replacement when it outlives its’ design life, just like water and sewer systems, roads, bridges, etc. Just kick it down the road!).

lostinacointoss
Wed, 06/03/2020 - 9:13am

I'm very pleased to see that this is happening, and both parties are coming together from across the aisle to find answers. Obviously blame can be placed on EGLE, FERC and Boyce Hydro, and they all need to be held accountable for all of the years of neglect and inactivity. FERC and EGLE should have more power and the ability to hand out greater consequences to private dam owners who do not comply with their orders. It's also clear that EGLE's 50% spillway capacity for Michigan dams is not nearly high enough. That needs to change.

FERC and EGLE (and other state entities like Michigan's EGLE) also need to have strict guidelines in place when ownership of a dam or dams passes to a new private owner. When Boyce and Mueller were purchasing the dams, cost estimates for repairs and spillway improvements should have been assessed, and Boyce Hydro made to prove they had the necessary capital to pay for those upgrades before the dams changed hands to Boyce.

It is baffling to me that in this day and age, 100+ years since many of these failing dams were constructed, that these simple measures have not been put in place. Hopefully this is a step in the right direction that leads to new policy so it never happens here in the U.S. again.

John Smith
Wed, 06/03/2020 - 4:03pm

This dam was cited as far back as 1993 for being in disrepair. Why was Boyce Hydro allowed to purchase a dam that was already compromised? Shouldn't the Feds and State required updates and upgrades to be done "prior" to the sale in 2008? Furthermore, if Mr. Mueller was a man of means as has been said, why was he not told that updates "must" be done prior to the sale placing the dam in your stewardship? The State and Feds should be on the hook for this infrastructure disaster.