Bipartisan House committee seeks state's answers on Edenville Dam failure

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

A congressional committee has asked the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy for additional information on the Edenville Dam, which broke May 19, flooding the Midland area and forcing the evacuation of more than 10,000 people. 

The U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce asked in a Friday letter for more details about what actions Michigan took or didn’t take to secure the Edenville Dam after jurisdiction was shifted to the state from the federal government in 2018.

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

The committee includes Michigan U.S. Reps. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph; Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn; and Tim Walberg, R-Tipton. 

The letter sent to EGLE Director Leisl Clark requests information about the state’s evaluation of the dam in the past two years and any regulatory or legal action taken in recent months against the dam owner Boyce Hydro. 

Federal lawmakers sent a similar letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to discern its actions surrounding the dam prior to 2018. 

“This inquiry is critical to ensuring this never happens again in any city in America with a high hazard dam,” Upton and Dingell said in a Monday statement. “It is concerning there are serious gaps in existing laws and gathering the facts will be essential as we consider future bipartisan legislation to protect communities across the country.”

Clark has received the letter and "looks forward to providing the committee with answers," said Hugh McDiarmid, a spokesman for the environmental department. 

Among the questions asked of Clark in the letter are ones pertaining to state communication with federal authorities about the dam; the state’s perceived obligations in relation to the dam; any legal and regulatory efforts the state took since 2018; and what action was taken after the state found in January that the dam didn’t meet flood capacity standards. 

The letter also inquiries about resources dedicated to dam safety in Michigan. According to the agency, the state has two staff members and a supervisor in a dam safety unit responsible for 1,059 dams. 

Jurisdiction over the dam shifted from federal regulators to Michigan’s environmental agency in 2018 after Boyce Hydro Power failed to comply with federal regulations for more than a decade. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission pulled Edenville Dam’s hydropower generation license in 2018 because of those violations. 

Despite federal concerns, the state’s initial "cursory" inspection of the Edenville Dam in October 2018 found that the structure was in “fair structural condition,” but it worked with the dam’s potential buyer, Four Lakes Task Force, to further examine the dam’s spillway capacity. 

As early as Jan. 31, the state found the dam was not able to meet the state’s flooding standard, which require dams to be able to handle half of the worst storm possible for the area. The state’s standard is half that of the federal standard, which requires dams to be capable of handline 100% of the worst possible flooding. 

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, McDiarmid said last week. The report was not completed.

As the state worked to confirm that Jan. 31 finding, a fight between state regulators and Boyce escalated over water levels and the potential exposure of freshwater mussels on Wixom Lake when too much water was let out of the lake through Edenville Dam. 

On May 1, Attorney General Dana Nessel filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Department of Natural Resources and EGLE suing the dam company for lowering lake levels in the winters of 2018 and 2019 without state authorization, actions the state argued had exposed and killed thousands of endangered freshwater mussels. 

The lawsuit came roughly a month after EGLE granted Boyce a permit to raise water levels on Wixom Lake.

Boyce manager Lee Mueller has argued the threat of the lawsuit and residents seeking higher lake levels for recreational purposes pressured him to request the permit to raise levels just prior to the flood. 

But the state had rejected that accusation, noting lake levels on Wixom Lake were established via court order and Mueller’s insistence on lowering levels during the winter was purely monetary.