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Judge: Midland dam owners ignored problems, caused ‘environmental disaster’

A federal judge says Boyce Hydro knew about and should have fixed flaws that led to a massive collapse (Bridge file photo)
  • A federal judge has ruled Edenville Dam owners violated Michigan laws by failing to fix known safety threats
  • The 2020 dam collapse led to massive flooding in the Midland area, causing $200 million in damage
  • Attorney General Dana Nessel declares victory; former attorney for dam says judge fell for ‘largest lie possible’

LANSING — The owners of the Edenville Dam ignored known weaknesses that led to a May 2020 collapse and “one of the worst environmental disasters that the state of Michigan has ever experienced,” a judge ruled Friday. 

The decision from U.S. District Court Judge Paul Maloney marks a victory for Attorney General Dana Nessel, who said Friday the state will now seek monetary damages from Boyce Hydro manager Lee Mueller of Nevada.

That could help the state recoup some of the $200 million it has allocated to shore up the Edenville and Sanford dams and restore two Midland-area lakes that are now part of the Tittabawassee River. 


The company itself, Boyce Hydro, filed for bankruptcy in 2020 and sold the dams to a local association of lake property owners. 

In his Friday ruling, Maloney cited evidence that Mueller had acknowledged in both a deposition and email to a company engineer that he knew the Edenville Dam embankment might fail as early as 2010, a full decade before it did so in catastrophic fashion.

Boyce Hydro's former general manager and engineer had recommended improvements in 2012 that were never implemented but would have "more likely than not to have prevented the failure," according to an expert report prepared for Nessel's prosecution team. 

Boyce Hydro had a legal responsibility to alert the state to "alarming circumstances" that "affected the safety of the dam," Maloney wrote, ruling the owners violated Michigan’s Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act.

Those revelations, discovered during litigation, were “vital” to the case, Nessel said in a Friday evening statement. 

“The state demonstrated dam ownership disregarded threats to the safety and integrity of the dam, and absolutely was responsible for its failure, so much so they had no defense whatsoever,” she said.

The Edenville Dam collapsed after heavy rains caused Wixom Lake levels to rise to record levels. 

When it failed, water surged down the Tittabawasee River and overwhelmed the Sanford Dam.

The flooding damaged or destroyed more than 2,500 homes and businesses and forced the evacuation of more than 10,000 people. 

”There exists sufficient evidence that defendants polluted, impaired, and destroyed Michigan’s natural resources through its continued failure to make necessary improvements,” he concluded.

Mueller could not be reached for comment Friday. 

Attorney Lawrence Kogan, who had represented Mueller and Boyce before withdrawing from the case in July, said the real fault lies with "all those locally who didn't wish to take the precaution years ago to allow the dam to be made safely" long before Boyce purchased it. 

"When you're living in a local community, and nobody wants to assume responsibility, you always go after the outsider because it's a perfect diversion," Kogan said. 

"The state has masterfully come up with the largest lie possible, and unfortunately the federal court has basically accommodated the state in perpetuating that lie."

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission revoked Boyce Hydro’s license to generate electricity in 2018 because it had failed to heed its demands for safety fixes.

Mueller repeatedly told regulators — first federal, and then the state — that he did not have enough money to make the repairs. In August 2020, the dam owners filed for bankruptcy.

Mike Wilkinson contributed to this story. 

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