U.S. Reps. demand answers about fed, state roles in dam failure

U.S. Reps. Debbie Dingell and Fred Upton | Andrew Roth

U.S. Reps. Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn), Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph) and Tim Walberg (R-Tipton) have sent letters to both agencies involved in overseeing the now-collapsed Edenville Dam, seeking answers about what happened in the lead-up to the catastrophic May 19 flooding event in Midland and surrounding counties.

Dingell and Upton announced in a joint press release Monday that their letters to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) inquire about the level of communications and coordination between the two agencies regarding the Edenville Dam, as well as their specific involvements in related proceedings over the years.

“It is critical we get the facts on what happened leading up to the federal government revoking the dam’s license, how the state evaluated the dam in the time since, and additional information on the regulatory and legal actions the state took following the revocation of the license,” Dingell and Upton wrote.

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“This inquiry is critical to ensuring this never happens again in any city in America with a high hazard dam. It is concerning there are serious gaps in existing laws and gathering the facts will be essential as we consider future bipartisan legislation to protect communities across the country.”

Dingell, Upton and Walberg are all members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

EGLE has been the primary regulatory authority over the Edenville project since September 2018, when the FERC revoked the license of private owner Boyce Hydro. That revocation shifted authority over dam safety regulation at the site to the state agency.

But the 2018 revocation of Boyce Hydro’s license had been preceded by more than a decade of safety and regulatory violations by the private company.

The lawmakers’ letter to FERC Chair Neil Chatterjee requests answers to a list of inquiries by June 12, including a question about why Boyce Hydro was allowed to operate the Edenville Dam out of compliance for more than a decade before the FERC revoked its license, and what actions the agency took over the years to address specific violations.

The letter to EGLE director Liesl Clark requests information about communications with the FERC before and after the collapse of Edenville. The senators also request information about how EGLE has viewed its authorities and obligations toward the project over time, and what regulatory and legal actions the department has taken against Boyce Hydro throughout the years.

Boyce Hydro’s three other dams along the Titabawassee River that also breached or flooded after Edenville’s collapse — the Sanford, Smallwood and Secord dams — are still regulated by the FERC, as are all of the state’s non-federal dams that produce electricity.

According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ national database of dams, last updated in summer 2018, about 15% of Michigan’s dams are primarily regulated by the federal agency. Most — about 1,000 — are overseen by EGLE, and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) looks over about 55.

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Many are owned by private companies.

The letters to the FERC and EGLE also request the agencies to provide policy recommendations to improve the safety of dams by June 12.

At Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s request, EGLE launched an investigation Wednesday into the cause of the dam breaches and a statewide review of dam safety throughout Michigan. Its first report on the Edenville Dam breach is expected by August.