MIDLAND, Mich. — Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Wednesday that the state will "pursue every line of legal recourse" against entities responsible for the failure of a river dam that forced thousands of residents to flee gushing floodwaters amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy — or EGLE — attributed the disaster to historic rainfall and deferred maintenance at the Edenville Dam, which is owned by Boyce Hydro Power LLC.
Federal regulators revoked the Edenville Dam’s license to produce hydroelectric power in 2018 over whether it could handle big floods.
“This incredible damage requires that we hold people responsible,” Whitmer said during a news conference Wednesday outside a high school being used to shelter evacuees. “The initial readout is that this was a known problem for a while, and that’s why it’s important that we do our due diligence and that we take our action as merited.”
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) also said it would investigate the disaster.
Midland High School, which was accommodating 150 evacuees, many of them with special needs, was one of few accessible sites Wednesday, as three other shelters were cut off by swamped roads. Michigan State Police troopers with boats helped get people out of their homes and deliver supplies.
The scene in Michigan after a pair of dams collapsed following record rainfall
Residents of the inundated area, meanwhile, were trying to reach safety Wednesday even as they worried about the coronavirus threat.
“I’ve got my mask, I got my gloves, I got my cat and finally got some socks,” said Susan Smith, a retired dance instructor who was standing in the lobby of Midland High School beside stacks of beds, dried food, cereal, Pop-Tarts, puzzles and copies of the Bible. Like other evacuees, she was trying to heed the governor’s advice to prevent the spread of the virus “to the best of your ability” by wearing masks and following social distancing guidelines.
At the high school, volunteers formed an assembly line to organize the supplies coming in. So much had been donated in the past 24 hours that the schools superintendent said no more would be accepted.
Smith, who evacuated her home late Tuesday, said she knew “it was time to leave everything behind” as she fought back tears. She heard from a neighbor that the water was coming and started throwing things in the car.
“I got a place to sleep, and there’s hand sanitizer and soap, and they tell you to practice social distancing, but in a moment like this, it’s like, what can you do?”
The flooding is also threatening a major Dow Chemical plant that lies along the river.
In a pair of statements, the company said that “there were floodwaters commingling with on-site containment ponds” but that the ponds were for storm and brine water and did not threaten residents. There had been “no reported product releases,” the company said, and it had “safely shut down” its units, except those needed to manage its chemical containment facilities.
Dow, which first built a plant in Midland in 1897, over the years has manufactured a wide array of products, including pesticides and herbicides. It has periodically clashed with the Environmental Protection Agency and a decade ago settled a case with the agency over dioxin and furan contamination of the Tittabawassee and Saginaw rivers, as well as Saginaw Bay. Its small, 53-year-old nuclear research reactor in the area has been shut down because of the pandemic, the company said
The Edenville Dam, the first to breach, was one of four built in 1924 along the Tittabawassee, about 20 miles upstream from Midland, to generate hydroelectric power, according to Gladwin County’s dam information.
The almost 7,000-foot-long earthen embankment reaches 55 feet high, creating Wixom Lake, a 2,000-acre reservoir with a 50-mile shoreline, behind it.
A second dam, at Sanford Lake, downstream from Edenville, was overwhelmed by the floodwaters. A Midland Daily News report said that the dam’s spillway had washed away but that the dam structure was still intact.
Heavy spring rains helped to trigger the disaster. Much of the Midwest has experienced a winter weather pattern that left many areas with eight to 10 inches of rain above average.
“This rain event just happened, and I’m not sure anything could have withstood it,” said Stacey Trapani, with the Four Lakes Task Force, a group residents formed to press for repairing the dams.
Midland received 3.83 inches on Tuesday — its fourth-highest calendar-day rainfall total on record and its wettest day since September 2015. During the past several decades, spring rainfall in Michigan has been on the increase, likely tied to warming temperatures related to climate change. Data points to a roughly 25 percent increase in March-through-May rainfall since 1970 in Midland. Spring temperatures have warmed a degree and a half there during that same time frame.
The past four years, 2016 through 2019, were ranked among Michigan’s top 15 wettest on record, and five of the top 10 wettest years have come in the past decade.
In September 2018, FERC voted to revoke the license to sell electricity from the Edenville site based on fear of flooding. In a scathing report, the agency said Boyce Hydro had an “extensive record of noncompliance” over the previous 13 years.
In particular, FERC wanted Boyce Hydro to increase spillway capacity that could divert floodwaters in an emergency. Instead, it said, the company had let existing spillways deteriorate with “major breaks” in walls and “concrete eroded to the point of exposed steel reinforcing rods.”
FERC said the company had shown “a pattern of delay and indifference to the potential consequences” of that danger, which “must be remedied in order to protect life, limb, and property.”
EGLE, the state’s environment and energy agency, assumed regulatory authority for Edenville, which was designated a high-hazard dam, in 2018 after the federal hydroelectric power license was revoked.
In an initial October 2018 inspection, EGLE found the dam to be in fair structural condition but was concerned about its spillway capacity and had taken enforcement action against Boyce Hydro for drawing down water levels without permission and for resulting damage to natural resources. According to its website, EGLE was pursuing additional enforcement action at the time of the breach.
Boyce Hydro Power could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Lori Spragens, executive director of the Association of State Dam Safety Officials, said 60 to 65 percent of the nation’s dams are privately owned and face rehabbing costs that could reach $20 billion, with little in the way of federal grants or loans available.
What happened at Edenville was “sadly typical,” Spragens said.
On Wednesday, road closures were preventing some residents from reaching their neighborhoods and others from being able to leave shelters. Patricia Wood saw the water coming up from the river. Sitting on a cot with a bag full of clothes that she grabbed heading out the door, Wood, 87, said she blames government mismanagement of the dam for the flooding.
“In this country, we spend a bunch of money on a lot of different things, and it was no secret that dam needed work,” she said.
At Midland High School, resident played cards spread farther than normal across a cafeteria table as volunteers in masks and gloves dodged one another in the hallways. Volunteer Lynn Baker, a school board member, pointed to pallets of water bottles, packs of peanut butter and stacks of boxes marked “food bank.”
She responded to a call for help from board members working to coordinate supplies.
“That’s what we’re doing,” she said. “We’re helping, and the community has really banded together.”
Brady Dennis and Matthew Cappucci contributed to this report.