Gov. directs state environmental dept. to probe Midland dam failures, review statewide safety

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer flying over Midland during flooding | Gov. Whitmer office photo

A week out from the rainy Tuesday night in mid-Michigan that saw the collapse of at least two dams, widespread flooding and evacuations, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has announced that an investigation will be done to determine what caused the failures.

In a letter to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) Wednesday, Whitmer requests that the department lead an investigation into the cause of the dam breaches, conduct a statewide review of dam safety throughout Michigan and provide policy recommendations to the state.

The Edenville and Sanford dams both failed on the evening of May 19 during heavy rainfall. The subsequent flooding down the Titabawassee River caused two more dams upstream, the Smallwood and Secord dams, to also overflow. All four dams are owned by the private company Boyce Hydro.

More than 11,000 residents have been evacuated. Whitmer has declared states of emergency for the affected areas, including Midland City and the counties of Arenac, Gladwin, Saginaw, and Iosco.

Whitmer asked President Donald Trump to declare a presidential state of emergency for the area on May 20, which Trump approved the next day while touring the Ford Rawsonville plant in Ypsilanti.

“We must ensure accountability and prevent a disaster like this from happening again. … As residents begin the painstaking task of picking up the pieces from this disaster, they deserve to know why these dams failed, uprooting their homes, businesses and lives in the process,” Whitmer said in a statement.

The letter to EGLE Director Liesl Clark specifically asks that the department “examine the storm event, the structural integrity of the dam, the dam owner’s compliance, and the handoff of regulatory oversight from the federal to state government.”

500-year flood event causes devastation in Midland County

Whitmer further requests that after reviewing the larger issue of dam safety across Michigan, EGLE should provide recommendations on “policy, budgetary, legislative, and enforcement reforms” to prevent similar situations from happening in the future.

A preliminary account of what caused the failure of the Edenville Dam, the first to breach on Tuesday, is expected to be provided to Whitmer no later than Aug. 31. The rest of the forensic investigation results from EGLE are requested to be available “as soon as possible” after that.

“Understand you have the full resources of my administration available to ensure this review is accurate, timely, and thorough. Please call on other departments and outside experts to assist in your review as needed,” Whitmer’s letter adds.

Speaking from Sanford on Wednesday for a brief press update on the situation, Whitmer told reporters that she chose EGLE to lead the investigation rather than an outside party because EGLE has the necessary expertise for the job.

Aftermath of Edenville Dam failure | Timothy Wenzel of Midland photo

Whitmer also noted that severe, decades-long underinvestment in the state’s infrastructure was likely a big factor in the dam breaches.

EGLE spokesperson Nick Assendelft said in an email that the department “looks forward to determining the facts that will inform recommendations to the governor, the legislature, and Michigan residents on how to best ensure safe operation and oversight of the thousands of dams in the state.

“The EGLE team has had boots on the ground gathering data to inform an investigation into the Edenville Dam failure, and is providing assistance to local agencies, responders and residents cleaning up from the aftermath of the disaster,” Assendelft said.