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Nessel: Edenville dam owner knew of flaws 10 years before breach

aerial view of Edenville dam in Midland
Attorneys for the state of Michigan charge that the owner of the Edenville dam knew in 2010 about potential problems with the same part of the dam that failed in 2020 but had not addressed them.
  • AG Dana Nessel said owner of failed dams knew of potential problems a decade before one dam failed
  • In a new court filing, state attorneys say the owner spent money instead on a music festival and a sawmill 
  • State lawmakers have set aside $200 million to restore the dams

Ten years before the catastrophic failure of the Edenville dam caused over $200 million in damage in mid-Michigan in 2020, the dam’s owner knew it had a serious flaw and did nothing, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said Thursday.

In a new filing in federal court, attorneys in Nessel’s office said the dam’s owner, Lee Mueller, was instead more focused on side projects like building a marina and organizing a music festival than solving the problems his safety engineer and federal regulators had long identified.


The state has been battling in federal court to get Mueller and multiple related firms to pay for the damage ever since. On Thursday, attorneys for the state urged a federal judge in Michigan’s western district to grant summary judgment in the state’s favor and avoid a trial.


"The Edenville Dam failure was a devastating tragedy for thousands in that community, and these new revelations clearly show that failure began at the very top of Boyce Hydro,” Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said in an accompanying public statement. 

“We discovered an unconscionable disregard for safety and dam integrity that cost the community that relied on the security of that dam immeasurably, and it’s important we share this with the court today.” 

Attorneys for the state say Mueller acknowledged in a 2021 email that he knew as far back as  2010 that the Edenville dam’s east embankment — the spot that first failed as winds and high water pounded it in May 2020 — was a potential trouble spot. 

In the email, Mueller “expressed concern” that the embankment was “far too narrow and the side slopes too steep,” and would not be “particularly conducive to withstanding” pressure from rising waters, according to the state’s court filing Thursday.

Yet the repairs called for — such as creating a bigger spillway that could let more water pass through, or shoring up the banks — never occurred, despite repeated pressure from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which oversaw the dam and three others owned by Mueller’s Boyce Hydro.

After hours of rain in mid-Michigan, the Edenville dam failed on May 19, 2020. Surging water also caused the failure of the downstream Sanford Dam near Midland.

The overall flooding caused more than $200 million in property damage and forced the evacuation of more than 10,000 people. 

The state has allocated $200 million to shore up the dams and restore the two lakes — Wixom and Sanford — that are now just parts of the Tittabawassee River. 

FERC revoked Boyce Hydro’s license to generate electricity in 2018 because it had failed to heed its demands for safety fixes.

Mueller repeatedly told regulators — first federal, and then the state — that he did not have enough money to make the repairs. In August 2020, the dam owners filed for bankruptcy. 

Although Mueller had long talked about wanting to build a marina near the dam, Frank Christie, one-time safety engineer for Boyce Hydro, said in a deposition that he and federal regulators successfully blocked the idea.


But Christie said Mueller was spending money on a music festival — nearly a half-million dollars — and on building a sawmill and a pole barn for equipment. 

When Christie raised questions about how this spending was getting in the way of providing for dam safety improvement, he told Mueller the four dams he owned needed his attention because “you’re in the hydro business now.”

According to Christie, Mueller responded: “I’m in the money-making business.”

Attorneys for Mueller could not be reached for comment Thursday. His attorneys in the past have said his financial burdens were real and put some of the blame back on the state for how it regulated the dam.

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