Editorial: Dam disaster enabled by government failures

The Detroit News

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel have promised a vigorous investigation to hold accountable those responsible for the catastrophic Midland-area dam collapse. They’ll need a wide net, and a willingness to look at the role their own shops played in enabling the disaster.

Early indications are that Michigan residents, just as with the Flint water crisis, were again failed by government at all levels as well as by the private sector.

The crumbling of the Edenville Dam Tuesday comes as no surprise. Federal regulators flagged the deficiencies of the hydroelectric structure more than two decades ago, and engaged in a long battle with the dam's owners to force improvements to spillways to make it safer.

The owners insisted the structure could handle the worst storms and stubbornly fought making the necessary upgrades.

Water floods the Midland Area Farmers Market and the bridge along the Tittabawassee River in Midland, Mich. on Tuesday, May 19, 2020.

The Federal Electric Regulatory Commission finally pulled the license of the most current owner, Boyce Hydro, in 2018 because of the high risk to life and property.

But instead of making residents safer, it placed them in greater danger. The loss of the federal licenses shifted oversight to the states, and Michigan is one of the few state’s whose regulations on dam safety are far less stringent than the federal standards.

State regulators inspected the dam in January and expressed concerns about the ability of its spillways to handle a significant surge in water level.

Last fall, the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) rejected a request from Boyce to lower lake levels behind the dam out of concern such a move would endanger aquatic species. 

The dispute ended up in state court, where just three weeks ago Nessel asked that the higher lake levels be maintained at levels high enough to preserve the freshwater mussels that live in the lake, despite the previous concerns expressed by both state and federal inspectors. 

Just as in Flint, poor communication and conflicting regulations between state and federal agencies and misplaced bureaucratic priorities created a dangerous situation in Midland that should have been apparent.

The company in a statement last week also said it was under pressure from homeowners around the lake to keep water levels high for recreational purposes.

Still, Boyce has much to answer for. It should have improved the spillways to enable the dam to operate properly and safely.

The state Legislature, too, has been aware for years that Michigan’s regulatory standards for dams are inadequate, and has not moved to fix them.

Now, Michigan must act swiftly to bring its regulations in line with those of the federal government.

Dozens of small dams similar to Edenville are operating across Michigan. They should be immediately inventoried, and those that are not up to federal standards should be brought into compliance or shut down.

And all state agencies should clearly understand that when the choice is between protecting human life or wildlife habitat, humans get the priority.

What happened in Midland could have been prevented. The task ahead is to determine why it wasn’t, and to put in place safeguards to ensure it doesn’t happen again.