Moolenaar, Dingell seek accountability measures in response to Midland dam failures

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — A pair of Michigan lawmakers are reintroducing legislation in the U.S. House aiming to plug gaps in federal law in response to the catastrophic flooding caused by the failure last May of the Edenville and Sanford dams in the Midland area. 

U.S. Reps. John Moolenaar, R-Midland, and Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, say the legislation would ensure compliance with dam and hydropower safety requirements and strengthen owner accountability for repairs and maintenance. 

The legislation, which was first introduced in December, is a reaction to the findings that regulators had struggled for years with oversight of dam operator Boyce Hydro, which had a history of safety and compliance problems and missed deadlines. 

In this Wednesday, May 20, 2020, photo, people survey the flood damage to the Curtis Road Bridge in Edenville, Mich., over the Tittabawassee River. The bridge sits just south of Wixom Lake where the dams failed.

"I think if we can make these changes, that will enable more accountability and could avert future disasters," Moolenaar said.

"In this case, there's no doubt that federal and state regulators failed our community. But they were working with an uncooperative private dam owner that added to the problems."

The Edenville and Sanford dams on the Tittabawassee River were breached May 19 after heavy rains and winds, emptying Wixom Lake and flooding parts of the Midland area. More than 10,000 people were evacuated, and the flooding caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage.

"It is clear there are serious gaps in existing laws that need to be addressed, and this could have been prevented," said Dingell, who suggested the legislation could be incorporated into President Joe Biden's proposed $2 trillion infrastructure package. 

"We can never let this happen again in any city in America with a high-hazard dam."

Dingell, who sits on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, last year had pressed the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on why it had not come down harder on the dam owner or its predecessors if FERC was aware of deficiencies in spillway capacity at the facility since at least 1999.

But Boyce Hydro had claimed that it lacked the financing for the spillway improvements. 

The legislation would mandate that dam and hydropower works meet FERC's dam safety requirements, and would require that the commission only issue a new license after it determines that the dam meets those safety requirements. 

It would also require FERC to establish procedures to evaluate the financial health of prospective hydropower licensees.

That was something that did not happen in the case of Boyce Hydro before it acquired the Edenville Dam because the structure was purchased out of a foreclosure. 

"I think that's important because if someone doesn't have the ability to pay for upgrades and maintenance, that puts an entire project at risk," Moolenaar said. 

The legislation also would create a requirement for FERC to convene technical conferences with state regulators to examine best practices for dam safety, "because you have multiple jurisdictions involved — federal and state — and it's important that we'd have everyone working together," Moolenaar said. 

He said the long-term recovery from the flooding continues in the Midland area, with people who were displaced transitioning to new places to live.

"The rebuilding is going to take a period of years. Right now, the focus is ensuring safety — the stabilization of the area — so that no further erosion damage occurs to homes and properties," Moolenaar said.

"And then there's the process of developing a long-term plan to hopefully get the dams up and running, to get the lakes back, get the property values back, and have a longer term flood-water management approach in that region."