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Two Dams Fail, Forcing 10,000 From Their Homes in Central Michigan, FERC Warned Edenville Dam Owners | Columbus Ohio Dump Trucks


First dam that failed from flooding had its license to generate hydropower revoked in 2018 over safety concerns

Gretchen Whitmer in Midland County
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks in Midland County May 20.
Photo courtesy of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer

The owner of a dam that failed May 19 in North Central Michigan had its power generation license revoked after more than a decade of negotiations with the federal government's energy regulator.

The Edenville dam, in north central Michigan on the border of Midland and Gladwin counties, failed around 6 PM EST the afternoon of May 19.

This Edenville dam's failure led to the subsequent overtopping and water flowing around the downstream Sanford dam on the Tittabawassee River. The inundation forced the evacuation of 10,000 people in Midland County. Heavy rain across the area had pushed the Tittabawassee's height to over its major flood stage at 28.25 ft the morning of May 19 and it had reached a record 34.6 ft by the afternoon of May 20. 24 ft is flood stage on this section of the Tittabawassee and the nearby Rifle River.

Years of operating in violation of regulations and longstanding concern that the Edenville dam's spillways could not withstand a major flood event led the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to revoke its license for power generation in September 2018. The main concern cited by FERC was the that the Edenville Dam's spillway would not be able to withstand a major flood event.

FERC notified the dam's previous owner as far back as 1999 that it needed to increase capacity of the Edenville dam's spillways to prevent a significant flood from overcoming the structure

Boyce Hydro, the Edenville dam's owner, had argued in legal filings and correspondence with FERC that revoking the power generation license, which happened after a notification from FERC in September 2018, would make it harder to sell the dam. Boyce Hydro and the Sanford Lake Association, a local consortium that was attempting to buy the dam, argued that ongoing litigation with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality over gaining permits to construct more spillway capacity were what was hampering maintenance and that revoking the license would only eliminate the only source of revenue that could be used to pay for the necessary repairs and upgrades.

Boyce Hydro also argued in 2018 that the "odds of a 'probable maximum flood' event occurring in the next 5 to 10 years is 5 to 10 in one million," according to federal records of its FERC request. FERC noted that Boyce Hydro had missed two previous deadlines in its decision denying a stay of the revocation of its generation license.

"For over 14 years, the commission has gone to great lengths to compel compliance with the license requirements and Boyce Hydro has delayed, disregarded its responsibility, and claimed that it was not financially capable of meeting such requirements. Meanwhile, Boyce Hydro continued to benefit from the revenues generated by the project," the commission wrote.

The Edenville dam was completed in 1925 and could generate 4.8 MW of electrical power. The violations Boyce Hydro had been cited by FERC for in recent years included making unauthorized repairs, unauthorized earth moving, failure to file proper safety plans, failure to provide recreational areas and public access, failure to secure necessary property rights and failure to comply with water quality orders. Boyce Hydro did not answer calls at its Midland office made by ENR for this story.

FERC Chairman Neil Chatterjee said the regulator is following the news and will direct Boyce Hydro to begin an investigation of what caused the failure after the emergency ends.

"When it is appropriate and safe to do so, FERC will send a staff engineer to the site to assist with the investigation," Chatterjee said. "The commission pledges to columbus oh dump truck work closely with state officials and coordinate our investigatory efforts wherever possible.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer [D] said in a news conference late on May 19 that, "This is unlike anything we've seen in Midland County. To go through this in the midst of a global pandemic is almost unthinkable."

Whitmer declared a state of emergency in Midland County May 19 and the Michigan National Guard has been responding along with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the governor said. The evacuation orders included parts of Midland, Edenville and Sanford. Shelters for residents seeking higher ground have been opened at three local high schools and a family center.

President Trump [R] said he would visit Michigan at the appropriate time to assess the damages and said the Army Corps of Engineers would assist local authorities in emergency repairs.

"I just spoke with Gretchen Whitmer. I will be going to Michigan at the appropriate time," he said, according to a White House pool report. "They have a big problem with the dams breaking. So that is a big big problem. And so we've sent the FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers out, and they're very good at dams, they're probably better at than anybody you can think of, right? The Army Corps of Engineers have done a fantastic job."

Dow Chemical's global headquarters, a chemical complex and its vast Superfund toxic-cleanup site are located in Midland along the Tittabawasse River just downstream and experienced flood impacts May 20.

"Dow’s local emergency operations center is fully activated and is implementing its flood preparedness plan. All operating units on site have been safely shutdown, except for facilities needed for safely managing chemical containment, and all railcars are secured. At approximately 10:00 AM eastern [May 22] it was confirmed there were flood waters commingling with on-site containment ponds. We immediately partnered with the U.S. Coast Guard to activate emergency plans. Only essential staff are onsite to monitor and manage the situation with no reported employee injuries. We will continue to engage with our site tenants and Midland County officials and take immediate action to ensure the safety and security of our employees, dump trucks columbus oh community and the environment." Dow Chemical said in a statement.

The superfund clean-up sites are downriver of the plant and headquarters.