State found by January that Edenville Dam didn't meet Michigan safety standards

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Four months before the Edenville Dam failed, the state discovered the 96-year-old structure didn’t meet even state standards for its capacity to withstand major flooding, according to inspector emails.

But the state’s concern that the dam couldn't accommodate a flood half as big as might be predicted differed from federal assertions, prompting a months-long attempt to reconcile the assessments in a larger report on the dam's condition. 

The remains of the Edenville Dam, as seen on Wednesday, May 20, 2020 in Edenville Township north of Midland. After two days of heavy rain, the Edenville Dam failed and flood waters rushed south, ravaging the landscape in its path.

The final analysis had been expected in March, but an engineer with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) told consultants on Jan. 31 that the dam was deficient even without considering the impact of waves on Wixom Lake.

"Factor in wave run up/set up, and the deficiency increases significantly," wrote dam safety engineer Luke Trumble to a consultant. "No big surprise there, but I wanted to have the calcs to support that assumption before EGLE makes a final determination."

The emails, released by EGLE at the request of The Detroit News, raise new questions about why the state — with knowledge that the dam likely failed both state and federal capacity standards — rejected the company's request to lower lake levels above the dam last fall. The state went on to sue the company this month over the death of freshwater mussels after it defied state orders and lowered lake levels.

It's not certain that lake levels or the dam's capacity shortcomings contributed to its catastrophic failure, said Dave Kepler, president of the Four Lakes Task Force, an authority that was in the process of buying Edenville and three other dams on behalf of Midland and Gladwin counties. But it's clear that a clunky transition from federal to state oversight of the dam beginning in 2018 was not helpful, he said.

"We did not want the federal government to back off until there was a good handoff to the state," Kepler said. "I think the collective view of this was that there wasn’t a good handoff between the federal government and the state." 

On Tuesday — as state regulators still sought answers on the dam’s flood capacity — historic rain and winds saturated the eastern earthen dike of the Edenville Dam and washed out roughly 900 feet.

Midland was flooded. And more than 10,000 people were evacuated before the flood waters crested Wednesday evening.

A screenshot of a video posted on Facebook by Ryan Kaleto shows flooding caused by a breach at the Edenville Dam in Midland County.

The break came after years of federal scolding over the Edenville Dam's inadequate spillway capacity, among other deficiencies, that eventually led in 2018 to the revocation of the dam's power generation license. Oversight then transferred to the state.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) notified the dam’s previous owner as far back as 1999 that it needed to increase capacity in its spillways and alerted Boyce Hydro Power LLC to those concerns when the license transferred to that owner in 2004. Despite a contract to sell the electricity generated by the dam to Consumers Energy, Boyce said it lacked the millions of dollars needed to increase spillway capacity to safe levels.

FERC began license revocation in June 2017, and assured local residents who opposed the move that state authorities were well positioned to hold the dam owners accountable for its deficiencies. 

More:Feds revoked Edenville Dam license over fears it could not survive major flood

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A few days after taking jurisdiction in 2018, the state completed a three-paragraph initial inspection report, finding that the dam and its spillways were in "fair structural condition" and posed no imminent threat.

The state says it started at "Ground Zero" in September 2018, taking regulatory authority over a dam that had been in the federal domain for decades with state laws that were less stringent.

Even with that challenge, there was hope for local residents in the Four Lakes Task Force, which announced Jan. 2 the $9.4 million deal to buy the Edenville Dam and three others owned by Boyce Hydro by 2022. The task force had taxing authority with which to repair the dams, which would be owned by Midland and Gladwin counties, and hoped to restore power generation at Edenville.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks at a press conference in Midland on May 20, 2020. She declared a state of emergency for Midland County after the Edenville and Sanford dams breached.

Accountability may not be immediate

In the two days leading up to the Edenville failure, record rainfall dropped more than four inches of rain over 48 hours, causing historic flooding in Midland County and, once the dams broke, a rare flash flood emergency along the Tittabawassee River.

The record weather event was preceded by years of what Larry Woodard called a "contentious at best" relationship between the Wixom Lake Association and Lee Mueller, the managing co-member of Boyce Hydro, with disagreements that largely centered on the dam operators decisions to lower or raise Wixom Lake. 

"I can’t say that it's been real friendly,” said Woodard, president for the association, but he didn't expect it to end in lake-less lakefront property, flooded roads and washed out bridges either. 

A man walks toward the Edenville Dam at Wixom Lake in Beaverton after the levees broke.

"It's very, very difficult to move up here right now,” said Woodard, who's spent his summers on Wixom Lake for nearly 20 years. "It’s a mess.”

EGLE has begun a forensic investigation into the dam's failure and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel have promised to pursue those responsible for the breach. 

Woodard is hesitant to put too much stock in the governor's pledge, given the decades-long failure of federal regulators to hold Boyce or Mueller accountable. 

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"He hasn’t done anything that FERC has ordered for the last 15, 16 years that I’ve paid attention, so I really don’t know if you can get blood out of a turnip," he said.

Kepler stressed that residents likely won't see a final answer on what happened for months; he even questions whether it was caused by the dam's known capacity deficiencies.

"I can’t tell you that the dam failed because of the (capacity) issue," said Kepler, a 39-year executive of Dow Chemical, the region's major employer, who retired as executive vice president. "All I can tell you is it failed and it shouldn’t have failed.”

Flood damage near the Edenville Bridge after the dam collapsed. Attorney Geoffrey Fieger filed two proposed class-action lawsuits Thursday seeking $500 million for  flood victims.

Assessing spillway capacity

The study assessing the dam's spillway capacity was undertaken in part at the behest of the Four Lakes Task Force, which wanted a complete understanding of what improvements would be needed, Kepler said. It was conducted by the group's consulting firm, Spicer Group, but emails show state regulators were working with the firm to complete it.

They began asking the Spicer Group as early as February 2019 for records on the dam’s spillway capacity, the amount of water a dam can release to reduce pressure and prevent a catastrophic failure. The state sent similar inquiries to Boyce's consulting firm, Purkeypile Consulting, in March 2019, about five months after taking jurisdiction.

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Over the next several months, the state reviewed materials to determine whether the dam met state standards. 

On Jan. 31, Trumble was apparently convinced that it did not meet the flood capacity requirements of the state, which are half as stringent as the federal standards.

“Assuming this stands, the dam would be about 4,000-5,000 [cubic feet per second] short of passing [the state standard] with no freeboard at the low point in the earthen embankments,” Trumble wrote. Freeboard is the distance between the water's surface and the top of a dam's containment wall.

On Feb. 7, Spicer Group Vice President Ronald Hansen responded to Trumble's email and said he hoped to have the report by late March but asked the state to notify Boyce and Four Lakes Task Force of the deficiency soon. 

“In the spirit (of) trying to implement dam safety improvements as quickly as possible, please notify the FLTF (Four Lakes Task Force) and Boyce of the ½ PMF deficiencies at your earliest convenience,” Hansen wrote. 

It’s unclear whether the state communicated the initial findings while it waited on the completed analysis, McDiarmid said.

But the company was “aware that the consultant’s analysis was, in part, aimed at making such a determination,” McDiarmid said. 

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The state issued no citations for inadequate spillway capacity while awaiting Spicer's study. 

Trumble mentioned in his emails the attendance at one meeting of Sen. Jim Stamas, a Midland Republican who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee and in whose district the dams are located.

Stamas told The News he'd been asked to facilitate conversations between EGLE and Four Lakes to move acquisition and repair plans forward when the relationship between EGLE and Boyce soured. 

"Mostly, I was just trying to maintain some kind of conversation," Stamas said

Damages on one of two North M-30 bridges on Wednesday, May 20, 2020 in Edenville Township north of Midland. After two days of heavy rain, the Edenville Dam failed and flood waters rushed south, ravaging the landscape in its path.

Lake-level battle

While the state studied the dam's ability to handle flooding, it twice denied permits that would have allowed Mueller to draw down water from Wixom Lake during the winters of 2018 and 2019. He now claims those drawdowns were because the dam was unable to handle a major flood. FERC had previously overruled state objections to lowering lake levels, saying the risk to mussels was not convincing enough to override the risks to life and property.

But by 2019, the dam was no longer under federal control. Mueller lowered lake levels in defiance of state orders, and, on May 1, Nessel sued over the alleged death of thousands of freshwater mussels. 

More:Midland, flood evacuees try to manage crisis atop crisis

Boyce Hydro's Mueller now claims that, if not for resident pressure to raise water levels for recreation and the state's legal pressure to protect the mussels, the dam would not have failed.

"The State agencies clearly care more about mussels living in the impoundment than they do about the people living downstream of the dams,” Mueller said in a statement. The statement acknowledges the years of unproductive federal and state efforts to force his company into compliance, but says Boyce could not overcome financial constraints. 

The state calls Mueller’s claims “categorically false" and notes they come with from a company with a "troubling track record of noncompliance and neglect."

Stamas didn't deny that Mueller had a long and tortured history with regulators, but also expressed frustration with EGLE's handling of Mueller's permits and Nessel's lawsuit over the mussels. 

"They were just not being helpful," Stamas said of state regulators. He argued that the permit denials, violation notices and lawsuit deterred Four Lakes' efforts to secure and improve the properties.

"They put in jeopardy the opportunity for Four Lakes and others to get the work done sooner rather than later," Stamas said.

The complicated history of the dam's oversight were a revelation to Randy Mier, a 64-year-old boilermaker who this week lost the lake in front of his Wixom Lake home. The lake is now little more than a stream surrounded by scoured rising banks of earth, a lake bottom exposed.

“I’d like to see the dam rebuilt," he said. "I bought water-skis so I could teach my grandkids.

"Also, I bought waterfront property — I didn’t want it to look like the Grand Canyon.

George Hunter contributed.