State launches lawsuit against Midland dam owner, claims company ‘ignored’ regulators for 14 years

Suit seeks $25K, other damages from Boyce Hydro

Aerial shot of the Sanford dam failure
An aerial view of the Sanford dam failure | Martin Szeliga of Pinconning

The state of Michigan is suing Boyce Hydro, the private owner of the failed Edenville and Sanford Dams that unleashed catastrophic flooding and caused $200 million in damage upon their collapse in May, for “gross mismanagement” and negligence.

Attorney General Dana Nessel announced the lawsuit Tuesday during a joint webinar with the directors of the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) and Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Nessel’s office is filing the suit on behalf of both state regulatory agencies.

Attorney General Dana Nessel | Susan J. Demas

The eight-count suit seeks compensation, civil fines, restoration and cleanup from Boyce Hydro to address the hefty damage left by the dam failures and subsequent flooding.

“We know the owners of the dam, with their long history of neglect, are responsible for the dam’s failure,” Nessel said. “… This lawsuit is intended to ensure that Boyce’s neglect does not further harm local residents from a breach on the Tobacco River side of the dam. It also seeks damages for the violations of law that Boyce has committed.”

Boyce Hydro owner Lee Mueller, his wife, Michele Mueller, and his cousin and co-owner, Stephen Hultberg, are all named as plaintiffs in the circuit court filing. They have not yet released a statement regarding the lawsuit, but alleged in previous press releases following the dam failures that state officials had pressured them to change water levels behind the structures.

“Boyce’s actions to lower the Wixom impoundment to preserve the integrity of the Edenville dam and protect its personnel and downstream residents and property were done under threat of a lawsuit by the Michigan Attorney General’s Office for millions of dollars in damages for allegedly killing freshwater mussels as a result of the two winter drawdowns,” the company said in a statement last month.

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

EGLE Director Liesl Clark and DNR Director Dan Eichinger noted the company’s laundry list of dam safety violations that go back as early as 1993. Clark, Eichinger and Nessel all rebuffed the assertion being made by Boyce’s lawyers that the state is somehow at fault for the initial dam failure.

“Boyce was responsible for properly maintaining and operating the dams in accordance with state and federal laws. They failed to do so. In fact, they ignored regulators for more than 14 years,” Clark said.

They also noted that Boyce Hydro’s owners illegally lowered winter lake levels in 2018 and 2019, harming wetlands and aquatic creatures. They said Boyce’s claims that the state ordered higher lake levels are false.

“The damage to natural resources from the flood and from the past actions of Boyce Hydro have been extensive,” Eichinger said. “This includes damage to our fish, our wildlife, our wetlands, as a direct result of Boyce Hydro’s willful negligence.”

Nessel also called on the state Legislature to strengthen environmental laws and regulatory efforts to prevent future disasters. She warned that more should be done to ensure that private owners comply with the law.

“Whenever private entities own public infrastructure, there’s a very real danger that profit will take priority over the safety of the public,” Nessel said.

The lawsuit is seeking:

  • A monetary judgement exceeding $25,000
  • An order requiring Boyce Hydro to repair the damage it has caused Michigan’s natural resources
  • An order requiring Boyce Hydro to clean up the discharges they have caused, pay civil fines and pay attorneys’ fees and costs
  • An order requiring Boyce Hydro to pay civil fines, restore the Sanford Lake and Wixom Lake ecosystems to their prior conditions and clean up unauthorized material on the bottomlands
  • An order requiring Boyce Hydro to restore the affected wetlands “as nearly as possible” to the state they were in prior to the Edenville Dam failure, and assess civil fines
  • Civil fines, restoration and other injunctive relief for failing to comply with dam safety laws
  • Damages for Boyce Hydro’s harm to aquatic life in Wixom and Sanford Lakes
  • An order requiring Boyce Hydro to repair and restore the damage caused by both dam failures, and forbidding the owners from “further harming public rights”
  • Boyce Hydro to reimburse the state of Michigan for expending “considerable public resources” to address the disaster

500-year flood event causes devastation in Midland County

The Michigan Chapter of Clean Water Action released a statement Tuesday evening praising the state’s decision to file the lawsuit.

“For too long, state regulatory agencies have been trying to hold corporations like Boyce Hydro accountable with one hand tied behind their back. The state needs to have every available tool at their disposal to compel compliance with laws and standards that have been put in place to protect Michigan residents and our environment,” said Director Mary Brady-Enerson.