Gov. Gretchen Whitmer launches investigation into Midland dam failures

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced an investigation into Midland dam failures on Wednesday. Bridge Magazine first reported that the owners of the Edenville Dam had not complied with federal regulations for more than a decade before it had its license revoked and handed over to state regulators.  (Bridge file photo by Dale Young)

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Wednesday formally announced a state investigation into two Midland-area dams whose failure amid heavy rains last week caused flooding of the Tittabawassee River that forced evacuations of more than 10,000 people. 

The investigation will explore the structural integrity of the Edenville Dam, its owner’s compliance and the regulatory handoff from the federal government to the state. Federal regulators flagged the dam for safety problems for more than three decades before the flood.

The Sanford Dam also failed, and investigators will be asked to provide recommendations on policies that can help prevent similar problems. 

“Those responsible need to be held accountable,” Whitmer said. “As residents begin the painstaking work of picking up the pieces of their lives from this disaster, they deserve to know why these dams failed, why they've been uprooted, uprooting businesses and lives as well.”

The investigation comes after Bridge Magazine first reported the largest of the dams, the Edenville Dam, was cited for noncompliance with federal regulations for years before its license to generate power was terminated in 2018.

That shifted oversight of that dam to state regulators, whose initial review deemed the dam in fair condition

Whitmer asked the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy for a preliminary account of what caused the failure of the dams by the end of August.

The state hadn’t demanded structural changes to the Edenville Dam in the year and a half since it came under their purview, but it recently sued dam owners Boyce Hydro Power LLC over lowering lake levels and endangering a rare species of freshwater mussels. 

A spokesperson for EGLE told Bridge it was waiting on a study expected in late March that would allow them to enforce dam improvements. 

Boyce also owned the Sanford Dam, which also failed during last week’s rains.

EGLE will be responsible for leading the investigation into the failures, including its own regulatory duties, which has sparked complaints of a potential conflict of interest. 

Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, wrote on Twitter Wednesday evening that there are “too many unanswered questions about EGLE's involvement in the dam collapse for them to manage this investigation."

“We need to make sure the fox isn't guarding the hen house,” he wrote. “Local residents have real concerns. They deserve an independent investigation they can trust.”

“The regional EGLE or DEQ is much responsible for part of this,” Sen. Jim Stamas, R-Midland, told Bridge Wednesday. 

There does need to be an investigation, Stamas said, but the agency isn’t the right one to do it because they “created some delays [in upgrading the dams] and that was part of my frustration.”

Others, including attorneys for Midland-area residents who are suing the state over the damage done to their property in the flood, echoed his concerns. 

Whitmer said she chose EGLE to lead the investigation because she wanted to follow “the procedure that would ordinarily be followed,” she told reporters Wednesday. 

“We have to go to the agency that has the expertise,” Whitmer said in response to a question as to why she didn’t choose a third-party investigator. “I understand the nature of your question and can see the usual wisdom that might come with that but there are very few that have the kind of expertise that is really needed to be able to properly do this investigation.”

National experts, however, backed up critics of the state's response. Independent investigations are a cornerstone of dam failure response, according to national guidelines published by the Association of State Dam Safety Officials, a group that advocates for dam safety.

The guidelines outline appropriate actions dam safety officials should take in the wake of a dam disaster. One of the chief components of a sound investigation, according to the guidelines: 

“There is a clear need to establish and maintain independence of the investigation team members. Investigations have been seriously derailed due to public concerns that the investigation members (or their home organizations) had a stake in the outcome of the investigation.”

After the Spencer Dam in Nebraska failed last year, the state’s officials asked the national dam safety association to perform the investigation, with complete autonomy from the dam owner and state regulators. 

Mark Ogden, a technical specialist with the national group, said such independence is a vital component of post-disaster response. It’s not just about ensuring the investigators are well-equipped to carry out the post-mortem, Ogden said. It also “lends credence to the findings and the results."

Michigan Republicans have also called for Attorney General Dana Nessel to step down from any investigation into the dam failure, citing Bridge’s reporting on the lawsuits against the dam owner for alleged illegal lake drawdowns. 

Bridge has reported that Boyce Hydro, the company that owns the Edenville and Sanford Dams, ignored federal requirements to improve the Edenville dam’s ability to withstand heavy flooding, arguing it didn’t have the money necessary to make safety improvements to the dam. 

“There are a lot of problems with the owner of this particular dam,” Whitmer acknowledged at the Wednesday news conference. 

But long-term underinvestment infrastructure, the high level of precipitation and lack of a full ground freeze this year may have also contributed to the dam’s failure, she said. 

“It would be irresponsible to tell you that anyone knows precisely the full story here, and that’s why this investigation’s important.”

Kelly House contributed to this report.

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Mary Sue
Wed, 05/27/2020 - 4:46pm

What a bunch of bull. The investigation will explore the structural integrity of the Edenville Dam, its owner’s compliance and the regulatory handoff from the federal government to the state.... in other words, everything except the State (and the AG's) role and responsibility in the dam disaster. This Governor is such a joke.

Kevin Grand
Wed, 05/27/2020 - 6:04pm

"“Those responsible need to be held accountable,” Whitmer said. “As residents begin the painstaking work of picking up the pieces of their lives from this disaster, they deserve to know why these dams failed, why they've been uprooted, uprooting businesses and lives as well.”"

Looking forward to seeing the governor and AG turning themselves for their roles in this.

Oh, what am I saying!

Those two will shift the blame to everyone else but themselves.

Bob Balwinski
Thu, 05/28/2020 - 11:15am

Kevin, are you saying the AG and the Gov will emulate Trump in putting blame on everyone but himself????

Wed, 05/27/2020 - 6:51pm

The single most important finding needed to understand these dam failures and prevent a reoccurrence is the exact mode of failure of the Edenville Dam. While EGLE should be well experienced in this kind of failure mode analysis (Michigan has had more dam failures in the XXI Century than any other State), they are somewhat compromised. Better an outside engineering firm undertake this analysis.

The likely failure modes fall into three general categories: hydraulic, seepage, and structural. Determining exactly which failure mode was responsible will clear out a lot of adjectives now being thrown around as political distractions.

Thu, 05/28/2020 - 9:18am

Wow, the state investigating a state mess up. Anybody want to guess the outcome

Thu, 05/28/2020 - 11:36am

We can only hope we saved at least one mussel.

Thu, 05/28/2020 - 1:01pm

I said it over at the Boyce Hydro story comments section and I'll say it here, too. A few things that stand out to me, and some questions/thoughts that I still have:

I want to point out how weak and spineless the federal and state government's reaction and directive to all this has been post mortem. It seems absolutely ridiculous to me that the FERC is now requiring Mueller to come up with a report on the conditions of the other 3 dams, and Michigan EGLE performing their own investigation for the Edenville Dam.

Like, that's your response? That's the action you're going to take, here - to send the guy a strongly worded letter? After all this, you still REALLY think Mueller is going to comply and provide a timely, thorough report?? And what do you think that's even going to accomplish?

I mean, I feel like I'm on crazy pills with this. Hundreds, if not thousands of people have lost EVERYTHING. There are two giant pits of mud out there filled with the stench of rotting fish and mussels. And that's the best our federal and state regulators can come up with? This guy should be prosecuted - Now! Why was he not put in handcuffs the day after this happened?? I care 0% WHO he votes for. State and federal regulatory agencies let him slip through the cracks for years, and they have enough evidence to show he's directly responsible for destroying people's lives, businesses, and several state infrastructure. Enough is enough! Get this guy in an orange jumpsuit, he is a CRIMINAL for this!

Secondly, the deal struck between the Four Lakes Task Force and Mueller seems fishy (pardon the pun) to me. FLTF pays $9.4 million for the dams that Mueller paid $4.8 million for 15 years ago? Then the plan is to tax the lakefront residents to foot the bill for the repairs... What the heck kind of a deal is that? They're doing the same thing Mueller has been trying to do for years, just under a different name and under the guise of being "for the people."

Seems to me that the FLTF's "deal" was nothing more than slapping lipstick on a pig... unless there was more "incentive" for the FLTF, i.e. some kind of kickback from Mueller under the table. Just saying. Where did that $9.4 million number come from, how did they arrive at that number and why did the FLTF's inspectors (state entity?) conclude that Edenville Dam was in good enough shape to operate until FLTF took ownership and started making repairs?

Is the state of Michigan performing their own investigation so that evidence doesn't come to light about the FLTF working in cahoots with Boyce Hydro, making backdoor deals so everyone gets paid and the dams get fixed on the taxpayer dollar? In that scenario it sounds to me like there are a couple million $reasons$ why the state's regulators would deem the Edenville Dam "safe for operation," despite what the FERC warned for decades. I would like the FLTF to be investigated as well.

Questions and thoughts I have that are unanswered, at this point.

Ben W. Washburn
Thu, 05/28/2020 - 9:41pm

Hey, Lee Chatfield is Speaker of the House. Why is he criticizing the Governor for asking her staff for a report? The House has clear oversight powers (and responsibilities) to also investigate this tragedy. Will they employ a thoroughly independent and credible entity to investigate the causes thereof? Probably not, because as previous reports by Bridge and several other independent news sources have indicated, our Legislature has not only failed to appropriate sufficient funds to enable aggressive regulation of these thousands of mostly privately owned dams; it has failed to devise legislation which enables effective enforcement. When you're an opponent to governmental enforcement in the first place, the better political tactic is to take as many snipes as you can to place the blame somewhere else.
Actually, in light of this kind of sniping, the Governor would be well advised to also contract for an independent investigation and report from a competent and credible entity. But, that will take time and probably a special appropriation by the Legislature. But, let's see the resistance and stonewalling she will get from the same people who are criticizing her now, if she tries to do that! They will not like that kind of report.
As Governor, when something like this happens, she needed to get the best information that she can from her own employees, and to do that ASAP. Did she really need to make a public announcement that she was doing this??? Probably not, looking back at the predictable response. Should she instead just have stayed mum, and look like she could'nt care less???
And as far as the criticism from attorneys who are filing class actions against the State, they too have the option to finance an independent investigation of their own.

Fri, 05/29/2020 - 12:50pm

She can start with her AG.