Michigan Dam Failures Lead to Several Class Action Suits

A look at the Sanford Dam on Wednesday. (Kaytie Boomer/The Bay City Times via AP)

(CN) — Victims of Tuesday’s two dam failures in central Michigan have filed a flurry of class-action lawsuits against the companies which owned and managed the dams, claiming that massive floods near the city of Midland were the result of the owners’ failure to maintain the dams.

Two of Boyce Hydro Power’s four dams on the Tittabawassee River failed under the pressure of historic floods in Michigan on Tuesday, forcing over 10,000 people in three counties to evacuate their homes.

A dike on the Edenville Dam collapsed completely, and water overtopped the Sanford Dam, downstream of Edenville. The Edenville Dam, federal regulators said, had only 50% of the spillway capacity needed for a probable maximum flood event.

In class-action complaints filed Friday, three groups of evacuated residents and business owners have sued Boyce, its owners, subsidiaries and managers in federal court in the Eastern District of Michigan for failing to fix issues with the dams dating back as far as 1993.

The complaints argue that those problems, which regulators pointed out repeatedly for 25 years before revoking Boyce’s license to operate the Edenville Dam in 2018, caused the failures. Boyce purchased the dam in 2006.

One complaint also named the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Department of Environment, Great Lakes & Energy, which took over the Edenville dam after Boyce’s removal from management.

Among the plaintiffs are ten individuals, a mobile home resort and a rental property owner, all of whom owned properties damaged by the flooding.

Boyce bought the Edenville Dam, built in 1925, in 2004 shortly after a foreclosure put its predecessor, Wolverine Power Corporation, out of business. The three other dams were also part of that transaction.

Boyce’s tenure as dam owner was marked by controversy. Its initial acquisition came with big promises to repair existing issues with the nearly century-old dam, including by building at least one auxiliary spillway.

None of those plans were completed, according to the Associated Press, and Boyce was also caught performing unauthorized dam repairs, failing to monitor water quality and failing to file adequate public safety plans.

After its 2018 license revocation, Boyce continued raising and lowering water levels in Wixom Lake, which was created by the dam, enraging neighbors and killing “thousands, if not millions” of freshwater mussels, many of them endangered.

Plans to sell the dam to the Four Lakes Task Force, formed by local property owners and authorities, have been put on hold. The deal was expected to close within the next few months before the flooding began.

“Defendants failed year after year to bring the compliance with state and federal laws and regulatory requirements, making it safe for nearby persons and property,” attorney Rebekah Bailey of the Minneapolis firm Nichols Kaster wrote in one of the complaints. “This disaster was an unfortunate matter of time.”

Another complaint quoted the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which regulates hydroelectric dams like that at Edenville.

“Many dam owners have a difficult time believing that their dams could experience a rainfall many times greater than any they have witnessed over their lifetimes,” the Commission wrote in its dam safety guidelines. “Unfortunately, this attitude leads to a false sense of security because floods much greater than those experienced during any one person’s lifetime can and do occur.”

“We expect the courts to act swiftly to bring the hammer down given the documented record of negligence and obfuscation,” attorney Beth Fegan of Chicago firm Fegan Scott wrote in an email. “It is clear the dam owners and operators put their own profits over the well-being of Michigan residents, despite repeated warnings from the federal regulators that the dams had created a grave risk to life and property.”

Large swaths of Gladwin, Michigan and Saginaw Counties were still underwater Friday, including much of the city of Midland, home of manufacturing giant Dow Chemical, which manages an EPA superfund site in the flooded area.

Flood water contact with a containment pond at Dow, the company says, poses no hazard to the environment or residents. The EPA and state of Michigan plan to assess the environmental impact of flooding at the superfund site when the floods subside.

Boyce, located in Midland, still maintains the Sanford Dam and its two other dams in the area. It did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday evening.

%d bloggers like this: