Whitmer administration names outside team to probe Edenville dam failure

It could take up to 18 months for investigators to get to the bottom of what caused the Edenville Dam to fail on May 19, leading to widespread evacuations and some $200 million in damages to area homes, businesses and infrastructure. (Bridge file photo by Dale Young)

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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Comments

Don
Fri, 06/19/2020 - 8:45am

First question should be WHO IN THE STATE was paid off????

William C. Plumpe
Fri, 06/26/2020 - 10:25am

Same people who paid the Feds off for 14 years...

lostinacointoss
Fri, 06/19/2020 - 9:07am

Do we the people *honestly* trust a team that Boyce Hydro selected, and the FERC and EGLE - all of whom are at fault here, in one way or another - approved of? Honest question. Because I can't help but be skeptical.

All 3 were at each other's throats a few days ago, pointing fingers. Now they're walking down the yellow brick road and singing kum-ba-ya? Will not be surprised at all if this report comes out in 18 months claiming "inconclusive results" with "not enough evidence to support....."

Jeffrey Kless
Fri, 06/19/2020 - 4:52pm

You got it right. This is like putting an accused murderer on the prosecutors team. What am I missing?

Jake K
Fri, 06/19/2020 - 9:42am

Sure hope that the independent team can operate with full cooperation from all parties and that there is no hiding of facts and timelines. Our citizenry deserves the truth without any political partisanship. Wonder if the AG and other regulatory agencies are already circling their wagons? After the Flint debacle, I would hope that transparency rules.

William C. Plumpe
Fri, 06/19/2020 - 2:01pm

Why is it that when a disaster occurs suddenly the State is responsible after years of outright and shameful neglect by the owner plus total indifference and lack of action by the Feds?
Is the State the scapegoat because the Governor is a Democrat and a woman?

lostinacointoss
Fri, 06/19/2020 - 4:51pm

No, the points you've laid out have nothing to do with this. There are multiple articles - written by bridgemi.com and other regional, state, and national publications - that outline the state's responsibility and negligence in the matter, none of which have to do with race, gender or otherwise. I would suggest doing more research on the subject, William.

The fact is regulators at the Federal and State level, as well as (and mostly) private owners all had a hand in this tragedy.

William C. Plumpe
Sun, 06/21/2020 - 7:56am

No fault has been established yet but it seems too convenient that the Feds dump the dam mess on the State and then suddenly the State is at fault for years of neglect by the owner and lack of oversight by the Feds.
Plenty of blame to go around but the State's at the back of the line not the front. Owner and Feds come first.

middle of the mit
Sun, 06/21/2020 - 8:36pm

I don't see how anyone but the dam owner can be held responsible myself, but my bet is that the State takes the brunt of the blame, the Feds next and the dam owner walks away with a slap on the wrist.

First, despite what lostinacointoss says, there has been a party that has been diligently working to destroy regulations. How can you be responsible for regulating when you have been DEFUNDED? I would say that it was just Government workers calling in with the "regulator flu" but there are only 2 people to inspect over 800 dams each. That is THE conservative definition of defunded. Will they take credit for it?

Bridge just posted an article with the CEO of the MI manufacturers association. Funny how they get to unionize, isn't it? I wonder if they require dues? Any way he was saying he still wants all the goodies but without raising taxes on the people who have the money and he wants less regulation and "more incentives".

https://www.bridgemi.com/business-watch/michigan-manufacturers-want-ince...

[[[[" So we’re not looking so much for massive tax incentives as we are regulatory assistance to be safe — to protect our folks, protect our communities, protect our environment — but be able to do it with less regulations so we can say to folks, “This is a good place to do business.” ]]]

Then you look at the farmers and the runoff and then what Enbridge is doing and the people that are being put on the benches of our courts and all we have to look forward to are the people paying for the extravagances and the failings of the wealthy to make sure their lifestyle stays extravagant while ours are just above the water.

If the State and the Feds take the brunt....I have a suggestion for the Governor and the AG and EGLE. Give these conservatives and the private owners of dams the jackboot they apparently need to take care of their belongings and possessions. If the GOP won't award emergency funding to fund EGLE, DRAIN ALL LAKES behind PRIVATE DAMS, until such time a REAL inspection can take place. Let's call it an INCENTIVE.

Let's see what happens when the State acts like conservatives think the State can (and should?) act.

Wait 'till ya hear that howl!

And I am just going to come back here, to this very site and tell you conservatives what you used as your legal argument against the State!

Is this what is known as a Catch-22?

middle of the mit
Mon, 06/22/2020 - 5:35am

Addendum; The Government will always take the brunt of the blame, especially when it comes to conservatives. Can't we all see this for what it is? They only complain about defunding things when it is defunding police.......they sure don't mind defunding regulations.

Conservatives make sure that the Government fails, because they don't want it to succeed at all. That is what they have been doing for decades and they have succeeded and this will be another nail in the coffin of the Feds and the State, because neither entity had the power or the will to do what it took to make a private owner of a dam, fix it and then for a decade knew the Feds were questioning the integrity, and began a decade fight with the Lakefront property owners over the level of the unsafe lake and somehow..........The Feds and the State are going to take the brunt of the blame for this............While those were and are going to be the same said courts they will play out in again and again and again.............And the flood victims have no where else to go. How many of the people/corporations that are responsible for the superfund sites are paying now?

...@#$%%

lostinacointoss
Mon, 06/22/2020 - 10:02am

You're now discussing a separate issue. I think it's pretty clear all 3 are at fault, and all 3 are pointing fingers at each other. After the disaster, the state has explicitly and correctly pointed out that the FERC had known about the Edenville problems for more than 2 decades. And the FERC has explicitly and correctly pointed out that they passed oversight to the EGLE in 2018. The disaster happened on the state's watch, but could the FERC have given EGLE more information on the Edenville situation when they handed them the keys? We're still waiting to find out.

Bottom line is both of these agencies knew about the issues for decades, and let Boyce Hydro slip through the cracks until finally disaster struck. FERC and Boyce Hydro pointing the finger at EGLE and the state of Michigan has nothing to do with our governor being a woman or a Democrat. EGLE, FERC and (especially) Boyce Hydro are all at fault to varying degrees. They all know this, so they're trying to control the narrative and blame the other parties involved. Governmental oversight, in general, is systematically flawed for situations where private entities own and are the hook to maintain dams that affect public health and safety. People who closely follow this developing story know all of these aspects to it, and aren't looking to turn it into a partisan-driven tit-for-tat.

In my opinion, the most important thing now is working toward a common goal of putting pressure on the entities involved in order to secure financial support for citizens whose livelihoods have been financially and emotionally devastated by the entities responsible for their health and safety. Not partisan politics. After Whitmer's initial request, all 15 members of Michigan's Congress have penned a letter to President Trump asking for a major disaster declaration: https://www.ourmidland.com/news/article/Michigan-delegation-urges-Trump-...

Turning this story into a political wrestling match will only hurt the citizens affected by this tragedy by potentially slowing the progress of relief needed to support those who have lost so much.

middle of the mit
Tue, 06/23/2020 - 10:40pm

lostinacointoss,

I see where you are coming from, but what is FERC or EGLE supposed to do when someone won't comply? The closest analogy I can think of is ; my house is on a hill, you live on the low side of the hill next door. When it rains, the runoff from my property floods your basement and garage.

You and I spend countless hours and dollars in court trying to rectify the situation, but I don't have the money to do the work you say I should have to pay for, and you don't have the money to pay for the work I think you should pay for. You are going to blame me because the run off comes from my yard, and I am going to blame you for buying a house where water floods the basement and garage.

So to the courts we go, but do we blame the township or the county for not having proper drainage in place?

See, it is just a way to push the blame off the two parties that didn't want to fix either their own property or the one thing that made their property have value. Now they are both saying they have proof that the State neglected, but the State and Feds were just being worked by these two entities to see which ones would win the lake level fight and then they blame the State for winning the lawsuit, And then raised the level to the Full Legal Summer Level.

I don't believe there is any partisan ship in this at all. There is one party that despises regulation and that is why the Feds gave up. They used all the tools they could. Our State has had regulators cut to the point of non-existent.

The only tool we have left is to Drain those Lakes behind private dams!