Six experts chosen to investigate cause of Edenville Dam failure

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Michigan and federal regulators have signed off on six independent experts who will investigate why mid-Michigan's Edenville and Sanford dams failed in mid-May. 

The team, which held its first virtual meeting Wednesday, will be paid and contracted by dam owner Boyce Hydro, but were screened and approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy. 

The investigation is expected to take 18 months to complete, but the group could issue preliminary reports if there are discoveries that may help the state to mitigate potential failures at other dams, the state environmental department said in a Thursday statement. 

“With the knowledge and experience these professionals bring to the independent investigation, I am confident that we will get a clear picture of what went wrong with the two dams and why,” EGLE Director Liesl Clark said in a statement. “Transparency is extremely important as this process moves forward, and EGLE is ready to provide any information necessary to help get answers to this tragedy.”

A boy examines a structure near the Edenville Dam at Wixom Lake in Beaverton, Mich. on May 20.

Both FERC and EGLE had requested the investigation after the Edenville Dam broke May 19, sending a surge of water downstream and over the top of the Sanford Dam and flooding the Midland area. 

Boyce Hydro had been scolded by federal authorities for more than a decade prior to the break. In 2018, federal regulators revoked the Edenville Dam's hydropower generation license and ceded jurisdiction to the state. 

At the time of the dam's break, state regulators were pursuing litigation over unauthorized drawdowns that led to the deaths of millions of freshwater mussels and seeking to confirm reports and measurements that indicated the Edenville Dam did not meet state flood capacity requirements. 

House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, had called for an independent investigation after saying questions remained about the state's involvement in the dam failures.

John W. France, president of JWF Consulting and expert in engineering consulting and design, will lead the team.

Other members include dam engineering expert Irfan A. Alvi, hydromechanics expert Henry T. Falvey, hydraulics structure engineer Steve Higinbotham, water resources expert Arthur C. Miller and geotechnical engineer Jennifer Williams. 

Some team members were consulted in the investigation of the failure of the Oroville Dam in California in 2017, according to EGLE.

On May 27, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer requested state agencies to review several aspects of the dam break, including the storm, dam structure, compliance and the transition from federal to state authority. She also asked the department to explore Michigan's dam safety priorities and provide recommendations in a report on the matter. 

Whitmer asked for a "preliminary account of what happened" by Aug. 31.