Owners of dam flooding Midland ignored federal regulators for years

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As if things weren't already bad enough in Michigan, on Tuesday, dams in Edenville and Sanford flooded. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer declared a state of emergency in Midland County and ordered all residents to evacuate the area immediately.

"If you have not evacuated the area, do so now and get somewhere safe," Whitmer said in a statement. "This is unlike anything we’ve seen in Midland County."

It may be unlike anything we've ever seen, but federal regulators saw this coming. As other outlets have reported, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has long warned the owners to increase capacity of the Edenville dam's spillways to prevent a flood, going as far back as 1999. The agency issued another warning in 2004 when the ownership changed hands to a company called Boyce Hydro LLC, and another in 2017, when it declared the dam to be a "high hazard." In 2018, the FERC revoked Boyce Hydro's license, prompting years of litigation.

Part of the reason for the feet-dragging was that Boyce Hydro was planning to sell the system that the dam was part of to a regional authority in 2022 for $9.4 million — but the cost of improving the dams was expected to be $100 million.

The Detroit News reports Boyce Hydro argued that the FERC should not revoke its license because it would make the sale less attractive. The company also argued 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.

There is another entity that saw this coming, too: the media. In 2017, after a dam in Oroville, California was breached, the Detroit Free Press warned "Michigan's aging, crumbling dams pose a risk."

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality found all but six of the 88 dams it oversees were approaching or past 50 years old, the average engineered life span for a dam. And the American Society of Civil Engineers stated in a 2009 report that more than 90% of Michigan’s nearly 2,600 dams will reach or exceed their design life by 2020.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for the private owner of a dam who has repeatedly skirted federal regulation, Boyce Hydro LLC owner Lee Mueller is an ardent supporter of President Donald Trump. He was photographed wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat in a 2019 Rueters story about the Mueller Report (no relation), where his wife was quoted saying “I view the Mueller report as being one battle in a war against the United States of America’s founding principles and against Donald Trump.”

We’re not sure this is what Trump meant when he promised to “drain the swamp,” however. As of press time, Mueller, who lives in Las Vegas, had not commented on the crisis his dam caused in Michigan.

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About The Author

Lee DeVito

Leyland "Lee" DeVito grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, where he read Metro Times religiously due to teenaged-induced boredom. He became a contributing writer for Metro Times in 2009, and Editor in Chief in 2016. In addition to writing, he also supplies occasional illustrations. His writing has been published...
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