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Whitmer administration names outside team to probe Edenville dam failure

After criticism from lawmakers, area residents and experts who said the state of Michigan should not lead an investigation into the failure of the Edenville Dam and a second dam in May, the state announced Thursday an outside team will conduct the probe. 

Boyce Hydro, the dam’s owner, selected the six-person team with approval from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes & Energy and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission — two agencies that have played a role in the troubled dam’s oversight.

“With the knowledge and experience these professionals bring to the independent investigation I am confident that we will get a clear picture of what went wrong with the two dams and why,” EGLE Director  Liesl Clark said in a statement announcing the team. “Transparency is extremely important as this process moves forward and EGLE is ready to provide any information necessary to help get answers to this tragedy.”

Investigative team members had their first meeting Wednesday. The probe could take up to 18 months, but investigators may provide interim findings before releasing their full findings, according to a release. 

Team members include nationally-recognized experts with extensive experience in dam safety, post-disaster investigation, and consulting on dam removals and other complex projects. Three of the members were part of an investigation into the failure of the Oroville dam in California in 2017 that forced the evacuation of nearly 190,000 people.

John France, a Denver-based engineering consultant with decades of experience in dam safety who has served on multiple federal technical review boards, will be the team leader of the Edenville dam investigation.

David Capka, director of dam safety for FERC, wrote in letters to Boyce that all of the recommended investigators were “highly qualified.”

In an interview Thursday, Lawrence Kogan, an attorney for Boyce Hydro, said he was pleased with the team. “They’ve had a lot of experience,” Kogan said. “This is good for Michigan, too.” 

Heavy rains last month broke a hole in the Edenville Dam’s earthen embankment, sending billions of gallons of water downstream and triggering the failure of the downstream Sanford Dam. As the floodwaters rose, more than 10,000 people were forced to evacuate. The waters inflicted some $200 million in property damages.

The catastrophe came after years of warnings from federal regulators that the Edenville Dam lacked the capacity to pass a major flood downstream.  FERC eventually revoked Boyce’s permit to generate power from the dam in September 2018, which kicked regulatory duties over to the state. 

FERC retained oversight of the downstream Sanford Dam and two other area dams that Boyce owns.

Michigan’s flood control standards are half as strict as FERC’s, and although state officials said they suspected the Edenville Dam didn’t meet even that lower standard, they ordered no fixes and said they were still in the process of making a conclusive determination on the dam’s safety when the dam failed last month.

Days after the disaster, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered EGLE to lead an investigation into the failure. 

“Those responsible need to be held accountable,” Whitmer said at the time.

As calls for an independent investigation began to mount, Whitmer defended the idea of an EGLE-led review, noting that the department possesses special expertise but adding that “some independent investigators” would also be involved.

In an interview Thursday, EGLE spokesman Hugh McDiarmid said enlisting an outside review team to investigate was envisioned all along. Whitmer spokesperson Tiffany Brown echoed that sentiment in an email, saying that  Whitmer’s original call for the investigation had asked EGLE to call on outside experts to assist as needed.

The investigative team will work independently from EGLE, FERC and Boyce, McDiarmid said, but the agencies will provide information and data needed to support the investigation. 

“With the formation of the team, EGLE is stepping back and letting the team do its work,” McDiarmid said, adding that state officials will “wait for the report like everyone else.”

Michael Pitt, an attorney representing flood victims in a class-action lawsuit against the state, who also called for an independent investigation, said he was happy to hear Thursday’s announcement, but said it “does not go far enough.”

Independent investigators should also be hired to analyze the “failures in the state’s regulatory environment that contributed to the dam’s failure,” he said. 

McDiarmid said EGLE officials are working to identify outside reviewers to develop recommendations for policy changes to prevent future dam failures. 

While the team investigating the structural causes of the Edenville failure looks into the circumstances surrounding the failure, a federal judge has ordered a separate probe into lingering dangers at the dam site. 

Citing a “grave risk to public property and health” posed by cracks in the remaining dam structure and other lingering dangers, U.S. District Judge Paul Maloney on Monday ordered Boyce to immediately inspect the dam and submit a plan to address any dangers.

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