Feds: Boyce Hydro wrong, Smallwood Dam damaged in mid-Michigan flooding

Christine MacDonald
The Detroit News

The Smallwood Dam — upstream from two Midland-area dams that failed last week — is damaged even though its owner indicated to federal officials it had no "consequential" harm after last week's historic rains, according to the federal agency that oversees the dam. 

In a letter dated Tuesday, an official with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission said he disagreed with Boyce Hydro Inc. and believes Smallwood did sustain damage.  

Smallwood Hydroelectric dam in Gladwin, Michigan on Wednesday, May 27, 2020.

David Capka, director of the FERC's Division of Dam Safety and Inspection, also in the letter reiterated that the company is ordered to safely draw down water levels at its Smallwood and Secord dams to identify safety issues. 

"Based on our site assessment, we do not agree that Smallwood sustained no consequential damage," wrote Capka to Boyce Hydro's manager, Lee Mueller. "To the contrary, Smallwood sustained erosion damage in multiple locations. Each project must be thoroughly inspected and the conclusions provided to FERC before any return to normal operations will be allowed."

An email and phone call to a Boyce Hydro attorney weren't returned Wednesday.

It's not clear exactly how Mueller characterized Smallwood dam's condition. He sent a letter to Capka on May 22, but it was not publicly released by FERC because it's considered to contain "critical energy infrastructure" information, according to its website.

In his response letter, Capka said Mueller wrote that the Secord and Sanford dams had not "sustained any consequential damage." But Capka said Mueller "clearly" meant to refer to Secord and Smallwood because the Sanford dam breached. 

The Edenville and Sanford dams on the Tittabawassee River breached May 19 after record rains and winds, emptying Wixom Lake and flooding parts of the Midland area. More than 10,000 people were evacuated before the floodwaters crested May 20. 

Boyce Hydro owns the four dams: Edenville, Sanford, Smallwood and Secord. The FERC regulates all but Edenville, which is overseen by state officials. The four dams on the Tittabawassee River create Wixom, Sanford, Secord and Smallwood lakes.

When asked the condition of Secord, a FERC spokeswoman said it will be examined closely when the water levels are lowered.

"We will have more information once we inspect it after the drawdown," Celeste Miller wrote in an email. 

Federal officials found the Edenville Dam, which failed causing the area's widespread flooding, to be unsafe and revoked its energy license in 2018; state officials found it did not meet less stringent state standards in January, according to emails reviewed by The Detroit News.

Smallwood Hydroelectric dam in Gladwin, Michigan on Wednesday, May 27, 2020.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced Wednesday she wants an investigation by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy into the failure of the two dams and is asking area environmental officials to recommend ways to prevent future disasters.

Whitmer wants EGLE to present a preliminary account of what happened with the Edenville Dam by Aug. 31.

On May 20, the FERC ordered Mueller, who is based in Las Vegas, do an inspection of the Sanford, Smallwood and Secord dams three days after the water receded.

And it ordered Mueller to form an "Independent Forensic Investigation Team" to determine the "the root cause of the overtopping damage to Sanford Dam as well as any other contributing causes." The FERC is giving Boyce Hydro until May 29 to submit a proposal for the team. 

The day after the dams were breached, state officials found that Smallwood and Secord were in "relatively stable condition" but did find that Smallwood sustained damage "next to the powerhouse, requiring Boyce staff to place fill overnight to stop active erosion and stabilize the embankment," according to a timeline from EGLE.

The Smallwood dam was built in 1925 and had its last annual inspection in June 2019. Inspectors found it in "satisfactory condition," according to FERC. It's considered a "high hazard" dam, meaning its failure could cause loss of life. 

"I am sure there was some (damage to the dam)," said John Hart, a property owner and president of the Smallwood Lake Association. "There was a lot of water moving."

He's been on the lake since the early 1960s and this was the worst flooding he's seen. He got two-and-a-half feet of water in an older cottage and another eight inches of water in a newer home built on the property. He estimates it will cost up to $40,000 in repairs. 

"I am hopeful we will get our lake back," Hart said. 

A two-county authority on Tuesday, meanwhile, halted the planned purchase of the four Boyce Hydro dams. The task force had secured at least $5 million in state grants for repairs and was working to set up a special assessment for the anticipated two-year ownership transition and $100 million in planned upgrades.