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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

Michigan GOP calls for Nessel to step down from investigation into dam failure

The Michigan Republican Party is calling for Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel to recuse herself from any investigation of the Edenville Dam, which failed this week amid heavy rains and flooded the Midland area.

The request cited Bridge Magazine reporting that found the state didn’t demand structural improvements after federal regulators pulled the dam’s license over inadequate flood capacity in 2018, and Nessel instead sued the dam owner in order to protect freshwater mussels from lake drawdowns. 

"With these troubling new revelations that the state's lawsuits may have played a role in this tragedy, it is clear that Attorney General Dana Nessel should not lead this investigation,” Republican Party chair Laura Cox said in a statement. 

“Therefore, the Michigan Republican Party calls for the Attorney General to turn over the investigation of the Edenville Dam's failure to federal authorities.”

Courtney Covington, spokesperson for the Attorney General’s office, called Cox’s statement “untrue and irresponsible” in an email to Bridge. 

“The primary focus of the Department of Attorney General is to assist with any legal efforts necessary to provide immediate relief to the citizens that have been affected by this tragedy, not to play politics with the Michigan Republican Party chair,” Covington said. 

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Thursday the state is “in the midst of going through (an) investigation” into the causes of the dam failure and pledged that “where there is culpability, we will pursue holding people accountable.” 

She and Nessel also released a statement Wednesday promising to pursue every legal avenue possible to get compensation for the thousands of Midland-area residents affected by the flood.

Nessel’s office in late April sued the dam’s owner, Boyce Hydro Power LLC, alleging it illegally lowered Wixom Lake over the last two years. State officials have claimed Boyce lowered the dam to avoid expensive maintenance measures required during winter weather.

For more than two decades, federal regulators cited the dam as unsafe due to inadequate spillway capacity, which ensures dams are able to safely discharge water in the case of a flood. 

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in late 2018 revoked the license of Boyce to continue creating hydroelectric power after years of noncompliance. 

The dam then went under the regulation of what is now the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, where inspectors found there to be “moderate deterioration” of the spillways but it “appeared to be stable and functioning normally.” 

The department didn’t demand any repairs, though a spokesperson told Bridge they were “continuing conversations about that deficiency.” Another state spokesperson, Hugh McDiarmid Jr., told Bridge that state officials were amid a comprehensive analysis of the dam’s structural issues when the flood hit.

“It is possible to protect public safety and natural resources at the same time,” Covington of the Attorney General’s office said. “EGLE and DNR’s lawsuit had nothing to do with the tragic event that took place and never sought to compromise public safety.”

Boyce has claimed the state was pressuring it to raise the levels of Wixom Lake before the flood and expressed concerns about the environment, but not the dam’s design. Last month’s lawsuit from Nessel’s office against Boyce claimed the drawdowns of Wixom Lake in 2018 killed “thousands if not millions of freshwater mussels.”

“It seems to us that there is a bit of conflict of interest” in Nessel leading an investigation into the dam failure due to the department’s lawsuit existing against the company, GOP spokesperson Tony Zammit said.

 

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