Feds revoked dam’s license over safety issues. Then Michigan deemed it safe.

The waters of the Tittabawasee river won't be held back by this stop sign. (Bridge photo by Dale G. Young)

MIDLAND — Nine days after federal regulators revoked a license of the Edenville Dam over years of failing to fix “structural instability,” Michigan inspectors ruled it was in “fair” condition and allowed it to continue operating, records show.

And in the 19 months since that 2018 inspection, Michigan regulators didn’t  demand any repairs to the dam that failed Tuesday, sending billions of gallons of water across Midland and Saginaw counties and displacing thousands of people.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer toured the devastation Wednesday and said the state “is reviewing every potential legal recourse that we have, because this incredible damage requires that we hold people responsible.”

“The initial readout is that this was a known problem for a while,” Whitmer told reporters Wednesday.

A flooded storage shed near downtown Midland stays upright against the waters of the river as it continues to rise.(Bridge photo by Dale G. Young)

The tragedy was hardly without warning. 

Since at least 2004, federal regulators have demanded repairs to the dam, writing its owners “failed for many years to comply with significant license and safety requirements.” 

Its potential dangers were well-known to homeowners along four lakes tied to the Edenville Dam and three others. Years of dissatisfaction with dam owner Boyce Hydro Power prompted neighbors to band together to plan to agree to buy the dams for $9.4 million in January and plan over $5 million in repairs, a deal that had not been finalized before the flood. 

Michigan regulators “had strong concerns the dam did not have enough spillway capacity” in the event of heavy rains and “expressed those concerns,” said Nick Assendelft, a state energy spokesperson. 

But regulators did not move beyond “continued conversations” about repairs, he said.  Instead, the state was focused on what it called illegal efforts by Boyce to lower water levels the past two years.

After it rained some 8 inches earlier this week — in what Whitmer termed a “500-year event” — the Edenville Dam failed.

“This was clearly a catastrophic failure both of the dam and of our government at all levels,” said Mike Shriberg, Great Lakes regional executive director for the National Wildlife Federation.

A man in a quad vehicle splashes through flood waters as the Tittabawasee river continues to rise Wednesday, near Freeland. (Bridge photo by Dale G Young)

In nearby Sanford, which is now under water, Hazel Lutze admitted she’s “pissed” as she stood at a roadblock Wednesday and watched the silty brown floodwaters flow under a bridge over the Tittabawassee River. 

She’s heard her porch is missing, and her fence.

But she’s more upset about the owners of the dam that failed.

“If he knew it was broken, why didn’t he get it fixed?”

Numerous messages with Boyce Hydro and its owner, Lee Mueller, who lives in Las Vegas, were not returned Tuesday or Wednesday.

A history of noncompliance

U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow told Bridge via email that the incident “is another example of the serious consequences when there is a lack of accountability in our enforcement system and a failure to invest in our critical infrastructure.”

Indeed, federal and legal records show Boyce Hydro clashed with federal safety regulators beginning in 2004, when it took over the 95-year-old dam from Wolverine Power Corp.

Boyce generates power to sell to Consumers Energy, so regulation of its dam initially fell to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission rather than state inspectors. 

In court documents, federal regulators wrote Boyce repeatedly failed to improve its capacity to handle big floods, revealing “a pattern of delay and indifference to the potential consequences.” Fixing the dam was necessary “in order to protect life, limb, and property,” lawyers for the FERC wrote in January 2018. 

The dam has two spillways, which are used to help dams safely drain extra water in the case of heavy rainfall. 

For years, the FERC had told Boyce the dam didn’t meet design standards and could only drain about half of the expected “probable maximum flood” — the amount of water expected in the most severe storm that’s reasonably possible in the region.

Federal regulators told Boyce Hydro it needed to build two spillways to accommodate potential flooding,` and the company agreed. 

But over the next 13 years, Boyce missed numerous deadlines to add the spillways, arguing it didn’t have enough money to finish the projects and couldn’t borrow more. 

The Sanford dam failing at about 7:40 p.m. Tuesday. (Photo courtesy of Tiffany Thibodeaux)

When federal regulators moved to shut down the dam, the company argued that stopping energy production would cut its revenue in half, “starving it of the very funds it needs to maintain, let alone increase, the spillway capacity.”

After a months-long legal battle, Boyce Hydro lost its license to generate power with the Edenville dam in 2018, though it retained its license for three other dams in the area. The state took over regulation of the Edenville dam. 

Hugh McDiarmid Jr., a spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) said the state had intended to review the dam’s design in March after getting a report from Boyce Hydro’s consultant.

But it did not get the consultant’s report and it has not fully evaluated the design, McDiarmid said.

The design “should always be looked at,” said Mark Ogden, a technical specialist with the Association of Dam Safety Officials, adding that poor design was cited in two of the most recent high-damage dam failures in Nebraska and California.

Ogden said dam inspectors from both the FERC and individual states typically look at both the physical structure of dams and their design.

But with the Edenville Dam, Michigan’s inspectors looked at the physical structure and identified some problems and deemed it in “fair structural condition.”

In a three-paragraph report, attached to 45 photos, inspector Jim Pawloski wrote the earthen embankments were “well maintained, with only a few bare spots, minor erosion, and no visible signs of significant distress.”

Embankment drains appeared to be functional and the two concrete spillways “showed signs of moderate deterioration … but appeared to be stable and functioning normally,” Pawloski wrote in the Oct. 8, 2018 report.

U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, who along with Stabenow said he will push for federal relief for Midland, told Bridge the incident shows “there needs to be tougher rules if you’re not in compliance.”

That's not to say Michigan regulators ignored the dam.

But because state regulations are different than federal ones, Michigan inspectors instead focused on what they called illegal drawdowns of Wixom Lake.

State officials alleged Boyce's dams lowered the lake by more than 8 feet without permission in 2018 and 2019, and sued the company in April alleging the actions killed "thousands if not millions" of endangered freshwater mussels.

In a counter-suit, Boyce contended it lowered the lake to protect residents downstream from the possibility of a flood, 

Act of God or man?

Some neighbors and elected officials say the dam breach is an unfortunate but unavoidable result of what is likely the worst flood in more than 30 years in which anywhere from 4 to 8 inches fell in the region. 

Stacey Trapani, spokesperson for the Four Lakes Task Force that agreed to buy the dams from Boyce Hydro earlier this year, said the “dams were operational and everything was working fine with them.”

“I really believe that it was the water, this historic amount of water that was coming through that was the major catalyst for this,” she said. 

“The dams are regulated” and the repairs needed weren’t the kind that would put people in danger, she said. “Nobody expected this kind of water level coming through so fast.”

She said she believes the group will still purchase the dams despite the disaster, but she’s not sure. “We’re in the assessment phase and we’re waiting for the emergency to subside.”

Dam failure isn’t unheard of in Michigan: In 1986, after it rained 8 to 14 inches, 11 dams failed in the southern part of the state. 

State Sen. Jim Stamas, R-Midland, said Boyce had “been working for many years to meet” federal regulations, which the senator said became more stringent over the years and was not met with financial support.

“No one would have ever expected this to happen,” said Stamas, who secured a $5 million grant from the state to help neighbors buy the dam.

Shriberg of the National Wildlife Federation said underinvestment in infrastructure, stronger and more regular storms due to climate change, and weak regulation are all to blame.

“This was a 500-year storm, but we’re seeing 100- and 500-year storms occur annually at this point,” Shriberg said, which means infrastructure needs to be prepared for catastrophic events like that which struck the Midland dams. “The problem is, the extraordinary is becoming the norm.”

FERC, the agency that revoked Boyce Hydro’s license in 2018, told Bridge via email it directed the company Wednesday morning to “undertake a forensic analysis of the root cause” of the overflow of the nearby Sanford dam (the Edenville dam is no longer in their jurisdiction). 

“We do not want to speculate on the cause or details of the incident,” an agency spokesperson said.

State Rep. Rodney Wakeman, R-Saginaw Township, took photos behind his parents’ cottage of the mud and the stranded boats. “It’s unfortunate that a lot of people are getting the brunt of the rain that fell and the lakes,” he said. “I just want it fixed as anyone out there.” (Photo courtesy of Rodney Wakeman)

A drained lake and downriver disaster

What remained, as waters continued to rise Wednesday, is blame, frustration and helplessness.

“I’ve been watching [the Edenville Dam] the last couple of years,” said Noah Robinson, 39, who lives on the western edge of Midland across the street from the Chippewa River.

“There’s a lot of people who are gonna lose their homes,” he said.

Up on Wixom Lake, which had been several square miles of water surrounded by homes, there’s not much water and a lot of mud after the dam failed.

While downriver victims are living in shelters and worried about lost possessions, the Wixom Lake residents see a lost lake. State Rep. Rodney Wakeman, R-Saginaw Township, took pictures behind his parents’ cottage of the mud and the stranded boats.

“It’s unfortunate that a lot of people are getting the brunt of the rain that fell and the lakes,” he said. “I just want it fixed as anyone out there.”

Bridge reporter Robin Erb contributed to this article

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Wed, 05/20/2020 - 9:56pm

I guessed it, "No one is to blame, Act of God." Thanks, Stamas, makes us all feel a lot better.

Nick Combs
Wed, 05/20/2020 - 11:57pm

I hate to link to another paper from this fine one, but together these papers are putting together a mind bottling picture of criminal incompetence. The News article goes deeper into Nessel’s attempt to save mussels by making this inept dam company raise the water levels weeks before this devastating tragedy. You’ve got to read this stuff- these fools running our state and these government agencies are piling up the bad.

Mary Sue
Thu, 05/21/2020 - 5:45pm

Are you kidding me? Michigan's current AG pressured the dam operator to raise the water levels just weeks before this dam broke? Oh my... she is going to really have to call everyone sexist real quick or else this is going to be a major scandal.

Sat, 05/23/2020 - 6:28am

AG Dana’s uniformed and negligent actions to raise the lake levels with full knowledge of the problem with the dam and risk the lives and home of tens of thousands is more than a scandal. It’s criminal. Michigan needs to remove these irresponsible and inexperienced leaders while we have a state at all.

Fri, 05/22/2020 - 7:52am

So we have plenty of evidence the spillways were insufficient. From the federal government. From the company themselves. But the state gets to take over and only cares that they lowered the levels. All of this destruction for nothing.

David Waymire
Fri, 05/22/2020 - 11:37am

You left out the most important part of the Detroit News story: "Federal standards require that dams that could present a significant danger to life and property if they failed must be able to accommodate the largest predictable storm — known as the probable maximum flood — a requirement the Edenville Dam does not meet. But the standard is lower under Michigan law, which requires high hazard dams to be designed to handle half that, or the equivalent of a 200-year flood. According to federal records, Edenville meets Michigan's capacity requirement." So the real issue is why Michigan's standard is so much less than the federal standard. And why the local lawmakers didn't try to raise our standard to the federal standard. Not to mention thanks to tax cuts we have only 3 inspectors for thousands of dams in Michigan. Looks like de-regulation and tax cuts are the real culprits here. We will see how concerned local lawmakers are...their first action when they return to Lansing should be to raise Michigan's standards to the federal standards, and then hold the companies that own the dams to those standards. Right now some companies buy on the cheap, refuse to maintain, then dump the costs when something fails on taxpayers. And it sounds like local lawmakers were siding with the company owners to keep the standards low.

Karen Crawford
Sat, 05/23/2020 - 2:07am

David, you are exactly correct in your assessment. We, in Michigan, have been systematically allowing the state s infastructure to deteriorate to the point of destruction, This time, it s 2 dams. Before this we finally noticed how bad our roads are. What s next? Bridges?
Ever since John Engler started it, our Republican legislature has been whittling away at the necessary funds for good inspections and outstanding maintanence. The longer this lasts, the more expensive recovery becomes.
Instead of portraying our government as the enemy and the cost of operations as grand theft, these Republicans desperately need to man up and take care of this beautuful state that they were elected to provide for and to nurture. Your time is up folks. If you can t do this, then get out of the way and let someone else step up who can do just that.

William C. Plumpe
Sat, 05/23/2020 - 11:57am

Agree 100% Dave but...
As always money is the problem.
Everybody wants to blame but nobody wants to pay.

Barry Visel
Wed, 05/20/2020 - 11:58pm

I feel bad for the people in Midland and others downstream from the failed dams. But, every Spring we endure stories about flooding. Flooding is not the problem. Building in flood plains is the problem. Building dams thinking we can control water flow is the problem. This has been going on long before climate change, so don’t think that’s the issue. As long as we’re stupid enough to build where water might flow this will continue to be an annual news story, which accomplishes nothing.

mary therese lemanek
Thu, 05/21/2020 - 5:15am

Agreed that we should not be building in a flood plain any longer but it is not feasible to relocate entire cities that already exist on them. Everyone knew that the potential for this happening was significant but it was easier to kick the can down the road.

Thu, 05/21/2020 - 4:54am

"One size don't fit all"
"Let the states decide; they know best"
"The regulations are too stringent, without financial support"
"Numerous messages with Boyce Hydro and its owner, Lee Mueller, who lives in Las Vegas, were not returned Tuesday or Wednesday."

Scott Roelofs
Thu, 05/21/2020 - 5:13pm

There will be many people who want to see the Wixom Lake dam rebuilt, mainly homeowners on the (former) lake. Their entire reason for living there, water recreation, is now gone and their home values will plummet. There will be much more people who will oppose any dam be built, mainly the tens of thousands of people who live downstream in Sanford, Midland, Freeland, and Shields. When a dam fails, the lake residents lose their view and boat dock and some home value. However, consider what the people downstream have lost....many have lost their homes and everything in them. A private group probably should not be permitted to rebuild that dam unless they are required to fund a $10,000,000 escrow to cover repairs in case they refuse to properly maintain the structure.

Bill comes due
Thu, 05/21/2020 - 5:25pm

While feeling terrible for those that are dealing with this ontop of the pandemic, I am glad that there are people that are stepping up to help those in their time of need.

Having said that and reading the stories on this site and multiple others, not to mention what this country is like today with the regulatory and tax debates, This is what America is going to look like.

On one side you have people that want to blame the Private company that purchased a 70 year old dam and made excuse after excuse to not make the recommended fixes. Others will say that private companies shouldn't own dams because they won't take care of them.

Some will say that it is the fault of federal and state regulators. Even though it seems as though the feds had their eye on the ball, but the State looked away. So much so that Rep Stamas secured $5million dollars from State taxpayers for a private lakeowners association to purchase a dam on their lake from a private company.

Others want to blame AG Nessel for the zebra mussels and raising the water levels. But she was going on the assessment of State regulators during the Snyder administration. And my bet is that the residents were just as upset with draw down by Boyce. If you live near a lake and read your local paper you will know what I am talking about. And I have never seen a lake drop by 8 feet. Not near me. Ever have your propeller stuck in the mud? And if Boyce lowered the lake level by more than 8 feet to avoid flooding downstream, that tells me they knew something was up with their 95 year old dam.

The fact that most of our infrastructure is at or beyond the expected lifetime, and there is still fighting about lowering taxes while complaining about costs, this is what Michigan and America are going to have to endure.

We are not the generation that paid to have this infrastructure built and we refuse to pay to keep it in working condition. Those lakes aren't going to be as full as they used to be when those dams go away.

A little tax to have lots of convenience or no tax to have no lake?

I think we have made our choice and it might be too late to change our minds.

Thu, 05/21/2020 - 6:53pm

Everything- even stuff that happens 10 or 20 years from now- is always and will forever by Rick Snyder and the Republican Party's fault. Follow the science.

Mark Freeland
Thu, 05/21/2020 - 7:00pm

You all can debate this issue all you want, we know who is responsible, the Michigan Legislature run by Republican's lead by Snyder the last 8 years. Myself, because I only live 2 blocks from this devastating flood I am much more concerned about Midland Dow you guys know? the company that makes Agent Orange and Round - Up. The flood inundated their facility. It is my sincere hope none of the chemical storage systems failed.

Geoffrey Owen
Fri, 05/22/2020 - 11:57am

As I understand this, the dams were in need of repairs and improvements. The owners said they could not afford to make improvements. The owners were selling electricity to the two major power suppliers. The utilities allow private generation of alternate energy sources, but the capitalization of the source whether it is wind, solar, or water is not their problem and the utilities actually fight to reduce compensation for the electricity generation they pass on to their customers. The state failed on inspections, on enforcement, on energy policy. The photo of the lake in the article by Rep. Wakeman R Saginaw shows the result of a problem that he likely ignored while serving his district. And both parties should admit the responsibilities and find solutions. It will happen again. The state needs to allow bond issues for the generation of alternate electricity to provide financing for needed repairs and capital improvements. There also needs to be increased incentives on the state level for investment in wind and solar at the homeowner level. We have a deep problem and we need to decide if we are going to bail it out or let it run downstream.

A Yooper
Sun, 05/24/2020 - 7:34am

Play the “blame game” all you want but it’s our own damn fault.
Everyone wants less federal oversight vis a vis states rights until something like this happens then it’s lock and load through smoke and mirrors.
What about the cancer causing dioxin holding ponds at Dow Chemical ? But Dow says there was no problem at the ponds...yeah and I own the Mackinac Bridge.
No money for the Super Fund to cleanup sites dotting our landscape. Nobody gives a crap until it strikes their backyards. Well you who want less taxes, it’s taxing you all now and pun very intended. Wake up people.

Richard Aubrey
Sun, 05/24/2020 - 3:02pm

Wonder if any of the clown-shoe posse involved in this had anything to do with the Flint water situation.

Tim Joseph
Mon, 05/25/2020 - 10:05am

Since Engler gutted the DEQ/DNR in the 90's, in my experience as an official in a township through which the Manistee River runs, their response to environmental violations has largely been "It looks alright to me".