Neighbors of Edenville Dam don’t want state investigating its failure

The Four Lakes Task Force, a group of mid-Michigan homeowners, is calling for an independent investigation into the failure of two dams last month. (Bridge file photo by Dale Young)

A group of property owners hoping to buy a troubled system of mid-Michigan dams is the latest to call for an independent investigation into the May 19 failure of two of them.

Dave Kepler, president of the Four Lakes Task Force, announced Tuesday his group wants independent investigators to review the disaster, which caused massive flooding and some $200 million in damages to more than 2,500 buildings in Midland, Gladwin and Saginaw counties.

The Four Lakes Task Force, which has an agreement to buy the dams, echoed concerns from a host of others who contend it’s a conflict for Michigan regulators to lead an investigation into the dams’ failure.

“We need to do this thing right and we need to make sure we get it right [so] there's no cloud over it once it's done,” said Kepler, whose group represents thousands of property owners along Smallwood, Secord, Sanford and Wixom lakes.

“We take the results and we move forward. We can't spend a year having an investigation that doesn't come out [where] people are very confident.”

The demand came several hours before Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel announced a lawsuit against the dam’s owner, Boyce Hydro Power LLC, alleging it is responsible for the dams’ failures and demanding it pay for costs related to the dam break.

To those “who own private infrastructure, we must tell them this: If you choose to place your own interests above the safety of the public, then you will be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law,” Nessel told reporters on Tuesday.

The lawsuit follows several class-action lawsuits from residents against the state and Boyce — as well as finger-pointing over the tragedy.

Michigan officials have claimed they were waiting for reports proving the largest of the dams, the Edenville Dam, was unsafe when it failed amid heavy rains.

But in a statement Tuesday, the homeowner group called for an independent investigation into the tragedy because the state is “creating [its] own narrative on the blame for the Edenville Dam’s failure.”

The group claimed state regulators were “aware of the deficiencies associated with Edenville Dam” in September 2019, four months before they had previously acknowledged.

The homeowner group also said the state has misstated that it couldn’t demand improvements from Boyce sooner because it didn’t have access to federal reports or a consultant’s study into the safety of the Edenville Dam whose failure sparked the flooding.

In fact, the task force offered to provide the consultant’s study to the state but was rebuffed by regulators, Kepler said. 

Hugh McDiarmid, spokesperson for the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, declined to respond specifically to the accusations, citing pending legal action. A court filing issued Tuesday indicates the agency received the report on June 4.

“EGLE recognizes the Four Lakes Task Force’s desire to understand the longstanding dam safety concerns that were unaddressed for years by Boyce Hydro,” McDiarmid told Bridge via email. 

“EGLE is focused on moving forward with facilitating an investigation into all potential causes of the catastrophe. This will also include a review of Michigan’s dam safety requirements and procedures.”

In its statement, the task force said the state approached members saying it “would be a good idea to come to agreement on a set of stipulated facts.”

The group wants the Association of State Dam Safety Officials to lead the probe, echoing concerns from safety experts that said EGLE’s investigation is an obvious conflict that puts the state in the position of investigating itself. 

On Monday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer defended her decision to have the EGLE lead the probe. Its regulators oversaw the largest of the dams, Edenville, since fall 2018 and demanded no major changes, even though federal regulators had terminated its license to generate electricity over safety concerns.

But Whitmer, in Midland County on Monday, said the department is best suited to lead the probe because it’s “going to take a certain level of expertise” to determine what caused the dam failure.

She said the agency will work with “some independent investigators” as well, but declined to identify them, saying “that’s all getting fleshed out right now.”

The Four Lakes Task Force signed a purchase agreement in December 2019 to acquire the dams. Kepler said the repairs to the dams, gates, spillways and other structures were going to reach $20 million.

But that was before heavy rains overloaded the lakes, causing the Edenville Dam to fail, with the water triggering the failure of the Sanford dam. 

The purchase agreement is currently off, he said.

For over two decades the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission had prodded the dam’s owner Boyce Hydro Power LLC and prior owners to expand flood capacity at the Edenville Dam. 

The September 2018 revocation of Boyce’s license shifted oversight to Michigan, whose dam safety standards are half as stringent as those of the federal government.

A state inspection of the dam in 2018 deemed it in fair condition

Michigan officials have claimed they couldn’t see FERC’s detailed safety reports because they were shielded by laws that protect the release of sensitive information regarding “critical infrastructure” like dams.

EGLE Director Liesl Clark told Bridge Tuesday that the two-person dam safety inspection team had to reconstruct the safety analyses and “has worked with anything that FERC has been able to give to us,” though some of it was kept confidential by law.

The homeowner group had the reports because it was conducting due diligence on its purchase of the dams, but the state did not want to see them, the task force asserted in its Tuesday timeline.

“FERC and the state need to step back and allow this investigation to be truly independent, especially since the [state] and Boyce Hydro, in the rush to sue each other, are creating a narrative without exercising diligence for the truth,” the statement from the task force read.

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Tue, 06/09/2020 - 8:32am

Please continue your excellent reporting on the dam failure. This latest news that the consultant was hired by the local residents and not the State of Michigan demonstrates why an independent investigator must look further into how the State was performing its regulatory duty.

Wed, 06/10/2020 - 9:10am

This is the same agency with a different name that brought us the Flint Water Crisis. The Dept. still reports to the State Attorney General, with all of their expertise and investigative powers. Ask the people of Flint, how well that has worked out. Since the state has been lying all along how can we trust the State to be truthfull in this matter.

Wed, 06/10/2020 - 5:08pm

In response to the Flint issue the AG was from the GOP republicans as was the Governor Snyder. Hopefully the truth will come out now that AG Bill Schuette is gone. I believe Nessel the new AG will do more for Flint. As well as the Sanford Lake Dam investigation. I believe 2 investigations will get the job done faster.

Wed, 06/10/2020 - 10:44am

“going to take a certain level of expertise” Please someone investigate what EGLE (and the governor) considers a "level of expertise" necessary to do the jobs they are required to do, i.e. check on the course work, and experience of the person responsible for dam safety. Water resource engineering (including dam safety) requires a very extensive field of course work - not found at MSU for example.

Wed, 06/10/2020 - 12:14pm

So the feds said this dam was unacceptable, the water level was lowered behind the dam, the the state AG said the water level must be raised to protect something, then the dam failed. Guess we know who should be paying the bill in this case. Dig deep, Ms. Nessel

Wed, 06/10/2020 - 7:00pm

If I lived downstream of these failed dams, I'd be doing everything possible to influence a decision to never rebuild them.

middle of the mit
Thu, 06/11/2020 - 2:25am

If I was a member of the Four Lakes Task Force or a member of the lakefront property owners association.......I would be careful what water I was about to tread.

I am just going to repost a comment I made in a rather informative article I read somewhere.

Bill comes due II
Fri, 05/22/2020 - 3:17pm

////"How we got to the point where environmental issues trumped public safety, I don't know," said David Kepler, a resident who lives off nearby Sanford Lake and is president of the Four Lakes Task Force, an association largely consisting of waterfront property owners that was in the process of buying the Edenville Dam and three others before this week’s flood.

Larry Woodard, president of the Wixom Lake Association, which represents lakeside homeowners, said the association’s members have long been frustrated with Boyce Hydro’s deep drawdowns.

In recent years, Woodard had fielded “complaints and complaints” from homeowners about low winter lake levels. He too was annoyed, because the drawdowns made it impossible to ice fish on Wixom Lake.

Lakeside homeowners tried to negotiate with Mueller “to get the levels where they’re supposed to be,” Woodard said, but “we had no authority to tell him what level he could be at.”////

I am betting that is how it got on her radar. I would also bet that the zebra mussels were the best legal strategy for the lakeside homeowners to get their levels where the homeowners wanted them.

Township Supervisor William Clark said the suit seeks an injunction against Boyce lowering water levels until financing is in place. He is not in favor of the flood project. “Almost everybody believes it’s ridiculous, but we’re not fighting that. It’s too big. They’ve done years of engineering studies.”

Notice the date on that article? Thursday, May 23, 2013

EDENVILLE — If $170 a year would save your lakefront property, would you pay it?

Did you see it?

Re read what the President of the Wixom lakefront property owners had to say and then what the township supervisor had to say about the flooding possibility. Why do you think that was going to stop them from having their lake when they thought it was fake news? And if you think it would've, well then, you don't what know what mussels can you? Or do they have documents that the State doesn't? Or does the State have these documents also? And who put this lake on the AG's radar again?

I suspect we are going to find out that is exactly how lake draw down got on the AG's radar, and those are the two groups who put it there. And the zebra mussels were the best legal strategy to rectify what the homeowners wanted.

But conservatives will blame regulators, except their hand appointed regulator who gave a 3 paragraph everything is OK signal, even though they despise regulators and regulation until private people won't keep up their equipment or property or pollution or whatever else.

Then people suffer Get used to it.

Aren't we already?

William C. Plumpe
Thu, 06/11/2020 - 12:41pm

I'm all for a truly independent investigation but question if any government agency State or Federal should oversee the investigation. I'd have the homeowners group hire an independent investigator to conduct the inquiry with the owner, Feds and State footing the bill. That would be the ideal solution but the State hiring an independent investigator with input. and oversight
from the Feds and homeowners group would be acceptable.

middle of the mit
Thu, 06/11/2020 - 11:34pm

Respectfully, that is a worthless proposal.

If the dam owner and lake front owners are going to gang up on the State, let them do it on their own dime. They are the ones that pushed this dam to it's limits without regard for safety, just their comfort. One of them defied Federal orders to fix it, and the others, I am betting, used the State to raise the levels the owner wouldn't.

I am not against an independent investigator but it seems that there have been sides taken and the lakefront owners and the dam owner are against the State because the State had regulatory control, even though we know regulations didn't matter to either one of them. See my post above yours.

Bridge needs to ask the AG how this got on her radar. And if the homowners or the "taskforce" had info that the dam was bad, why did they petition the State to raise the level to the legal summer level instead of keeping it at the 3" drawdown?

Those questions will answer everything we need to know.

Is this what personal responsibility has come to? Is this why conservatives are packing the courts after denying Oblame-o the ability to appoint judges?

In the" immortal words" of Jim Cary in the Mask......... I THINK SO!