(The Center Square) – Various entities are engaged in blaming one another for the catastrophic flooding of the Tittabawassee River in Midland and Gladwin counties after one dam collapsed and another breached on Tuesday.
Between 6 inches and 8 inches of rain fell in a 48 hour period, overwhelming the nearly 100-year-old dams. As a result, areas beneath the Edenville and Sanford dams were inundated with more than 35 feet of water, including the downtown areas of Midland and the nearby village of Sanford.
The subsequent devastation prompted Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to declare a state of emergency and call in the National Guard.
On Thursday night, that emergency became a nationally recognized disaster when the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) responded affirmatively to a request from the governor for its assistance.
“The federal emergency declaration is a good start because it will help us take protective measures to protect lives and property from further damage,” \Whitmer said in a statement. “These devastating floods have forced thousands of people from their homes and caused a tremendous amount of damage to our infrastructure. I’m hopeful that the federal government will soon approve the full funding request to help Michigan families rebuild after this natural disaster.”
A local independent newspaper, “The Chemical City Paper,” reported Friday that the Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation will give $1 million in the form of two grants to United Way of Midland County to assist recovery efforts in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
One $500,000 outright grant will support the coronavirus pandemic recovery, and another $500,000 matching grant will support flooding crisis recovery.
In the meantime, many Midland County residents and businesses wait for the floodwaters to recede before completely assessing damages while homeowners on the Wixom and Sanford lakes, located on the impoundments between the dams, are looking at mudflats where previously an outdoor recreational paradise existed.
And the area’s best-known industry, Dow Inc., is working with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) to determine the extent of any environmental damages caused when floodwaters reportedly comingled with the chemical company’s onsite containment ponds as well as swept through an Environmental Protection Agency superfund site.
“The damage from this crisis has devastated thousands of Midland County residents and business owners,” Whitmer said in a statement. “We must work together to ensure everyone who has been impacted by this event has the support they need to recover. I will work with the Attorney General and my partners at the state and federal level to help our families through this, and to help them get back on their feet once it’s safe to return home.”
Attorney General Dana Nessel indicated she will seek legal recourse for the failure of both dams.
“As Michigan continues to grapple with a deadly virus, our resiliency is being tested as the state is thrust into another emergency situation,” Nessel said in a statement. “My office will work with the Governor to consider any and all legal options that are available to address this serious set of circumstances.”
The attorney general’s official legal actions may have contributed to the disaster, according to the company that owns the dam, Boyce Hydro Power (BHP).
Nessel’s office has been engaged in a legal battle with BHP, which had yet to be resolved as evidenced by complaints issued by her office as recently as earlier this month.
At issue in the ongoing battle is the company’s lowering of lake levels, which the attorney general’s office alleged killed thousands of freshwater mussels. Mussels are a natural filtration system in bodies of water.
BHP, faced with potential fines of $25,000 sought by the attorney general, claims this threat prompted them to raise lake water levels, which BHP claims increased the likelihood of the flood.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) pulled BHP’s license to generate hydroelectricity at the Edenville facility in 2018 due to noncompliance with mandated repairs.
At that point, the state assumed control of the Edenville Dam. In October 2018, a Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ, now known as EGLE) inspection concluded: “[T]he dam was observed to be in fair structural condition.”
The DEQ inspector, Jim Pawloski, continued: “Its earthen embankments were well maintained, with only a few bare spots, minor erosion, and no visible signs of significant distress (sloughs, slumps, differential settlement, cracking, sinkholes, etc.) All embankment drains appeared to be functioning."
Pawloski added: "The dam’s two concrete spillways showed signs of moderate deterioration (spalling, exposed reinforcing steel, minor cracking and efflorescence), but appeared to be stable and functioning normally. All spillway gates appeared to be operational. No flow was discharging through the dam’s powerhouse, but the structure and generating equipment appeared to be in fair condition as well."