Editorial: Outside panel should probe dam failures

The Detroit News

CORRECTION: This editorial has been updated to reflect in all references that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has regulatory authority over the Sanford Dam and that Boyce Hydro is its owner. 

For any investigation to have credibility, those doing the investigating should have no stake in the outcome. That’s why Gov. Gretchen Whitmer should change course and appoint an independent panel to probe the failure of two Midland-area dams.

The governor launched an investigation last week, saying she is seeking recommendations to prevent similar catastrophes.

That's a laudable goal. But she also should want to know whether the dam collapses could have been prevented, and whether neglect by state agencies or individuals charged with protecting the public contributed to the disaster.

That information is less likely to be produced by the governor's approach.

More:Independent dam inquiry sought as Whitmer launches probe

Governor Gretchen Whitmer provides an update on COVID-19 in Michigan on Thursday, May 28, 2020.

Instead of naming an independent panel to figure out what happened and why, the governor put responsibility for the investigation under the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE).

EGLE had responsibility for inspecting the Edenville dam on the Tittabawassee River, while the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission was responsible for the Sanford Dam because it was still producing electricity. The failure of the dams led to widespread flooding, displacement and property damage.

The department says it will work with the Army Corps of Engineers, the FERC and outside experts. 

But EGLE in effect will be investigating itself. While an analysis four months ago found the Edenville dam to be out of compliance with state regulations, questions must be asked about what the department did in the aftermath of that finding to protect citizens.

If evidence suggests EGLE could have taken additional protective steps, will its own staff make that case?

EGLE is named as a defendant in some of the lawsuits that have been filed since the flooding, and that compromises its position as a disinterested investigator.

Also, the state was engaged in litigation with dam owner Boyce Hydro over lake levels. The state was concerned that lowering the water behind the dams would endanger delicate aquatic life.

Did that lawsuit contribute to disaster? That’s not a question EGLE will be eager to answer.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which has oversight of the Sanford dam, has already asked the owner to appoint their own investigator. 

And Michigan has no shortage of civil engineers and other experts who could be tapped for an investigative team motivated only by figuring out what happened and holding those responsible accountable, no matter who they are. The state's universities also could be called on to help.

Whitmer should form that panel and instruct it to conduct a thorough and unbiased investigation without regard to whether the findings prove embarrassing to her administration.

That’s the only way to assure credibility and accountability, and to produce a report that would help prevent a repeat of the Midland dam collapses.