The failure of the Edenville and Sanford dams earlier this month following years of warnings has raised questions about regulators’ ability to reign in dam owners who fail to make needed repairs.
Michigan is home to over 2,600 dams, with 1,059 that fall under the state’s purview. The team responsible for regulating them is comprised of two people: one in charge of the state’s upper half, the other who handles the lower half.
Both work for EGLE, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.
“Two inspectors being responsible for regulating 1,100 dams doesn’t seem like enough Inspectors,” said Channel 7’s Ross Jones.
“I understand that my agency EGLE used to have a lot more inspectors for dams,” said Hugh McDiarmid, an EGLE spokesman. “I don’t know exactly how that number dwindled, but that is how many we have, and it’s a tall order for them.”
In 2018, dams in Michigan were graded a C- by the American Society of Civil Engineers, according to Jacob Rushlow, president of their Michigan chapter.
Compared to other states, Michigan spends far less on dam safety regulation, Rushlow said: $374 per dam compared to a national average of just under $700.
Like much of the country, a majority of Michigan’s dams have far exceeded the 50-year estimated life expectancy, with 271 at least 100-years-old.
Of the 1,059 dams regulated by EGLE, 79 are rated in unsatisfactory or poor condition.
As of this afternoon, an EGLE spokesman could not say how many of those are considered high or significant hazard potential dams, where failure could lead to loss of life or property.
“There are a lot of these dams out there that are not in great shape, they have some sort of an identified deficiency that needs to be corrected,” said Mark Ogden, a technical specialist with the Association of Dam Safety Officials.
Ogden said he has become “somewhat resigned” to dam failures like what happened in Midland County last week because, while a dam’s weaknesses are usually well-known before a dam failure, fixes don't come because owners often say they can't afford to make them.
“Funding is the major cause or reasons that dams don’t get upgraded,” Ogden said. “A lot of dam owners just don’t have the funds. Some are unwilling to make whatever repairs are necessary.”
In the case of the Edenville dam, owner Boyce Hydro said repeatedly that it didn’t have the funds needed to make repairs that regulators wanted to address, including concerns over the dam’s spillway capacity. After federal regulators denied the dam's hydropower generating license in 2018, state regulators took over but ran into similiar problems.
“We can identify problems, we can order them fixed,” said EGLE spokesman Hugh McDiarmid, Jr., “but if the owners of these dams refuse to fix them or are unable to comply for financial reasons, we have limited tools in our toolbox.”
Senator Gary Peters is calling for changes to dam regulations, saying that when private dam owners don’t make repairs that could impact the safety of the public, state or federal regulators should be able to step in.
“What appears to happen in the case of these private dams is folks are happy to take the profits when they have them,” Peters said, “and then when there’s trouble, they say the cost is too great from what I earn each year.”
Peters added that “there has to be teeth in the regulations” to force companies to make the structural improvements necessary, and raised the possibility of using eminent domain to ensure fixes are made.
“This is a potential threat to the public. We have a private owner who’s unwilling in order to maintain it,” Peters said. “At what point does the community need to step up and say, this is a community asset?”