Worried that spring rains could trigger a second catastrophe at the Edenville Dam, Michigan regulators want to partially breach one of its spillways to address lingering safety concerns caused by the May 19 failure.
Officials with the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy detailed those plans in a report the agency sent to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Monday and released publicly Tuesday.
The report states that the partial breach “will achieve the goals of restoring flow to the downstream Tobacco River, alleviate strain on the collapsed M-30 bridges, minimize upstream impacts, and address dam safety concerns.”
The report did not address who is to blame for the failure that caused $200 million in damages and forced the evacuation of 11,000 residents in Midland and surrounding communities.
State and federal regulators failed to force dam owners to make repairs despite decades of warnings that it could not handle a heavy flood, prompting a host of class-action lawsuits.
Instead, the 29-page report focuses mainly on immediate safety concerns at the dam site, where the manmade Wixom Lake has reverted to a river that was eroding the surrounding land.
These concerns included the stability of the Tobacco River side earthen embankments, transportation challenges, and the natural resources impact associated with the diversion of the Tobacco and Tittabawassee rivers through the breach in the dam, the report states.
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In a conference call with reporters, public officials and others Tuesday, a Michigan dam inspector, Luke Trumble, said the state is working with an outside engineering firm, AECOM, on plans to lower the Tobacco side spillway.
Before it failed, the dam impounded both the Tobacco and Tittabawassee rivers into a reservoir known as Wixom Lake. The floodwaters that punched a hole in the dam’s earthen embankment on the Tittabawassee side also re-rerouted the Tobacco River into the hole, cutting off flow to the Tobacco River downstream of the dam.
By lowering the spillway on the Tobacco side, state officials hope to re-route the Tobacco back into its former channel. The idea, Trumble said, is to achieve water levels that are “safe and wouldn’t cause additional damage or failure of the dam into the future.”
AECOM, considered several solutions including a wholesale breach of the spillway. Ultimately, the consultants recommended the partial breach and “modification” as the best path forward.
Once the project design is complete, the state would issue an emergency order to Boyce Hydro to complete the project, according to the report.
But given recent history, state officials don’t expect Boyce to initiate work on Edenville. They’re making plans to do it themselves.
Trumble said construction should begin this fall and wrap up before spring rains arrive.
The state’s report notes that “despite continued efforts” to get Boyce to address safety concerns at the dam following the failure, “as of the date of this report, Boyce has not provided sufficient investigation and analysis to adequately assess the safety and stability of the dam or address the impacts to public safety and natural resources.”
“They’ve not hit one deadline or met one milestone that we’ve asked,” said Liesl Clark, director of the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy
Michigan is also partnering with the Four Lakes Task Force, a group of lakeside landowners who hope to purchase and repair Edenville and three neighboring Boyce-owned dams, to pay for the project.
The report notes that federal grants could cover 75 percent of construction costs and up to 7.5 percent of engineering costs.
The state will also bill Boyce for any costs, said Teresa Seidel, director of EGLE’s Water Resources Division, but that process could prove “tumultuous” because Boyce has filed for bankruptcy.
Boyce has sparred with state and federal regulators for decades,often claiming it lacked the money to make needed repairs and upgrades to its four mid-Michigan dams.
Its lawyers have claimed Michigan officials were far more interested in protecting freshwater mussels than ensuring dam safety.
Three weeks before the 96-year-old dam failed, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel sued its owner, alleging it illegally lowered Wixom Lake in 2018 and 2019, killing “thousands if not millions, of freshwater mussels.”
Tuesday’s report amounts mostly to a status update on the state’s response efforts so far, and does not provide significant new details into the cause of the failure, or who is to blame.
The report notes that those details will come later, when an independent investigation team completes its probe into the failure — a process that officials have said could take 18 months.
Separately, a review team from the Association of State Dam Safety Officials is reviewing Michigan’s dam safety program and is expected to publish a report this month that will recommend improvements to the program. A state task force is also conducting a broader review of dam safety in Michigan, from the dam safety program to statutes governing dam safety and budgetary issues.
The group’s final report is expected in early 2021.
Damage from the failures resulted in 464 claims to the National Flood Insurance Program, according to Tuesday’s report. Although 413 of those claims were closed without payment, the rest resulted in payments totaling $26.3 million.
The failures and subsequent misery for area residents “never should have happened,” Clark said. She said state officials are “eager for the results of the ongoing investigations and reviews” and will release interim findings as they become available.