Independent dam inquiry sought as Whitmer launches probe

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Sanford — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is launching an investigation into the failure last week of two Midland-area dams and wants Michigan environmental officials to recommend ways to prevent future disasters.

But the action was greeted with calls for an independent investigation. A plaintiff's attorney called for an independent investigation by a plaintiffs' attorney, as House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, said questions remain about the state's involvement in the failures.

"Those responsible need to be held accountable," Whitmer said during a Wednesday press conference outside Meridian Elementary School in Sanford.

“As residents begin the painstaking work of picking up the pieces of their lives from this disaster, they deserve to know why these dams failed."

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks during a news conference about the state's response surrounding last week's historic flooding around Midland County on Wednesday, May 27, 2020, at Meridian Elementary School in Sanford.

The probe will be done by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, whose officials suspected in January that the 96-year-old Edenville Dam didn't meet federal or even less-strict state standards for its capacity to withstand major flooding. The inspector emails were first reported by The Detroit News.

Four months later, historic rain and winds resulted in the Tittabawassee River last week breaching the Edenville and Sanford dams, emptying Wixom Lake and flooding parts of the Midland.

EGLE staff will be working closely with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and outside experts in hydraulics and geotechnical engineering on the in-dephth probe to understand what happened and why, department spokesman Nick Assendelft said. 

A flood-damaged Santa Claus rest amid debris along Partridge Lane in Midland on Wednesday, May 27, 2020.

"The most important thing is to get it right and develop substantive recommendations in both the Midland flood probe and Gov. Whitmer’s request to review the safe operation and oversight of the 2,500-plus dams in the state," Assendelft said. 

The governor has asked EGLE for a preliminary account of what happened with the Edenville Dam by Aug. 31, he said. 

But Michael Pitt, an attorney who's working on a class-action lawsuit against the state for its handling of the dams, slammed the idea that EGLE would be investigating itself.

“They can destroy the evidence. They can minimize evidence," Pitt said. "When you’re investigating yourself, you have a bias to protect yourself."

Chatfield said Midland-area families deserve the peace of mind an independent inquiry would provide.

"We are still learning more about how this happened every day, and local residents have reached out to us expressing very real concerns," the speaker said in a statement. "The people whose homes have been flooded and lives upended deserve an investigation they can trust.”

Whitmer should have launched an independent task force or had the Michigan State Police or Office of the Auditor General begin the inquiry, Pitt said. Whitmer's Republican predecessor, Gov. Rick Snyder, appointed an independent task force to investigate the Flint water crisis.

Richard Rasmussen of Midland tries to salvage family photographs damaged by flooding last week on Wednesday, May 27, 2020.

On Wednesday, the governor defended letting EGLE conduct the investigation, saying the department's officials have the expertise and would do “the kind of investigation that we all deserve and that we all expect.”

More than 10,000 people in mid-Michigan were evacuated before the floodwaters crested. 

Among them was Mark Brown, 58, an electrician whose family owns two properties near Sanford Lake. On Wednesday, he watched Whitmer's press conference at the school as one of his properties sat across the street from a lake that had been turned to a field of mud.

"The dam broke because of manmade failure," said Brown, who is considering declaring bankruptcy. 

Brown said he is hoping something is done to help owners whose homes have been flooded and devastated.

"If we don't do something in the next week or two, it doesn't really matter anyways because mold is going to start growing," he said.

On Wednesday, Whitmer said she is hopeful the federal government will provide more assistance. President Donald Trump last Thursday signed an emergency declaration she requested to start federal relief efforts by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

“While the need is immediate, sometimes, the relief takes a little bit longer,” Whitmer said.

Earlier this year, state inspectors were concerned that the dam couldn't accommodate a flood half as big as might be predicted, according to inspector emails. Michigan requires dams to be able to handle 50% of the greatest possible storm likely in that area.

The massive cleanup due to last week's historic flooding of the Tittabawassee River continues in Midland along Woodbridge Lane on Wednesday, May 27, 2020.

Inspectors were awaiting a consultant's report by the end of March to confirm or dispute their analysis before determining what next steps were needed, EGLE spokesman Hugh McDiarmid Jr. said in a Wednesday email. The report was not completed.

The department "had an engineer’s assessment that needed data to fully support it (or not)," McDiarmid said. "We could not have issued violations or orders on the strength of what we had."

In October 2018, state EGLE officials initially deemed the Edenville Dam to be in "fair structural condition." The 2018 inspection was "cursory" and not meant to determine whether the dam had structural deficiencies that prevented it from meeting state safety standards such as the spillway capacity requirement, McDiarmid said.

The January 2020 inspection was a more comprehensive analysis of the dam's condition, he said.  

Whitmer pushed back when asked about the state's seeking to require Edenville Dam owner Boyce Hydro Power to increase water levels as the company has contended. In a federal lawsuit filed May 1, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel's office accused Boyce of illegally lowering Lake Wixom's water levels and killing millions of mussels.

Whitmer argued there was a lot of information out there that wasn't "exactly accurate."

“It’s important that we get the facts,” she said.

Whitmer wants the state environmental department to recommend ways to improve dam safety in Michigan to avoid a repeat of last week's breaches.

The state gained jurisdiction over Edenville Dam in late 2018 after the Federal Energy Regulatory Authority revoked the dam’s license for hydropower generation following 13 years of scolding over the dam’s inability to handle a major storm.

Boyce Hydro Power said last week the revocation of Edenville's hydropower generation license in 2018 left the company with little money to pay for improvements. 

Carol Arnosky of Midland holds a sign and listens to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speak on Wednesday, May 27, 2020, at Meridian Elementary School in Sanford.

The Whitmer administration has blamed years of disinvestment in infrastructure as contributing to the dam's failure. The governor made a similar assessment during Wednesday's news conference. 

The beleaguered state environmental department was a key contributor during the Snyder administration to the Flint water crisis, when the city's drinking water was contaminated with lead following a switch to the Flint River as the main water source. 

A gubernatorial task force blamed state environmental regulators for failing to insist that Flint water officials add chemicals to the city's corrosive river water in 2014 and 2015, resulting in the leaching of lead from aging city pipelines.

Staff Writers Beth LeBlanc and Christine Ferretti contributed.