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MI Dam Failure Threatens Dow Contamination

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

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Just last week, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer declared a state of emergency for Midland County, Michigan, after floodwaters caused two dam failures, risking water contamination from a nearby Dow Chemical Co. Superfund site and forcing the evacuation of roughly 10,000 people.

The affected dams include the area’s 96-year-old Edenville (about 20 miles northwest of Midland) and 95-year-old Sanford dams (about eight miles downriver).

Flood, Contamination Risks

Last Tuesday (May 19), as a result of experiencing record rainfall, emergency responders reportedly went door-to-door to warn residents living along the Tittabawassee River and connected lakes in Midland County about rising flood waters and associated risks it posed to the nearby dam infrastructures.

However, just hours after the first evaluation and clearance to return home, residents were asked to leave a second time once the Edenville Dam officially breached. According to city of Midland spokesperson, Selina Tisdale, evacuations included the towns of Edenville, and parts of Midland and Sanford—where Dow Chemical Co.’s main plant sits on the city’s riverbank.

At the time of the evacuation, Whitmer estimated that downtown Midland could be under approximately 9 feet of water within 12-15 hours. The city is home to 42,000 and is roughly eight miles south of the Sanford Dam. These requests to evaluate or move to higher ground were also mirrored by the National Weather Service.

“This is an event unlike anything we’ve ever seen before," Whitmer said.

By Tuesday evening, the Tittabawassee River was reported to be at 30.5 feet high—the area’s flood stage is only 24 feet—and was predicted to crest Wednesday morning at a record high of roughly 38 feet. Although, if the Sanford Dam were to fail, Kaye added that the water surge would be much higher.

Midland City Manager Brad Kaye reported that that the Sanford Dam was overflowing, but that structural damage couldn’t be known until water levels reduced.

While the Sanford Dam seemed to be holding up, state officials feared that floodwaters could be mixing with containment ponds at the nearby Dow Chemical Co. plant, displacing sediment from a Superfund site—an area contaminated with dioxins. However, Dow reported that the ponds only hold water, adding that the company hadn’t detected any chemical releases.

Regardless, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said state officials would evaluate the plant when conditions are again favorable. Dow will also be required to assess the Superfund site to determine if any contamination was released.

Whitmer has announced that an investigation into the operators of the dams has been launched and that legal recourse would be pursued. No injuries or fatalities related to the incident have been reported at this time.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has also directed that dam-owner Boyce Hydro Power LLC to establish an independent investigation team to determine the cause of the damage to Sanford Dam, and that it would reach out to state officials regarding the Edenville Dam. The FERC plans to send an engineer to help with the investigation once the area is safe.

Dam Reports

Back in 2017, the FERC began the process to revoke Boyce Hydro’s license to operate the Edenville Dam due to non-compliance issues that included spillway capacity and the inability to pass the most severe flood reasonably possible.

However, The Detroit News reports that the FERC notified the dam’s previous owner as far back as 1999 that that infrastructure required a larger spillway capacity, and informed Boyce Hydro when the license was transferred to them in 2004.

According to Detroit News, Boyce Hydro claimed to have lacked millions funding to repair the infrastructure, regardless that it had inked a contract with Consumers Energy to sell electricity generated by the dam.

After taking jurisdiction, the state reported in a September 2018 inspection report that the dam and its spillways were in "fair structural condition" and posed no imminent threat.

At the beginning of January of this year, the Four Lakes Task Force announced a $9.4 million deal to buy the Edenville Dam and three others owned by Boyce Hydro by 2022. The task force is owned by Midland and Gladwin counties, and was tasked with repairing and restoring power generation at the dams.

Four months prior to the failure of Edenville Dam, dam safety engineer Luke Trumble with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy told consultants that the structure failed to meet state standards and wouldn’t accommodate flood predictions.

Although a final analysis was expected in March, Trumble reported that the dam was deficient even without considering the impact of waves on Wixom Lake.

While both structures will be undergoing an investigation, Detroit Free Press points out that issues with the state’s dam infrastructure runs deeper than lack of maintenance and repair. According to their report, the state of Michigan only has two officials—Trumble and Dan DeVan—to inspect and review dams, in addition to unit supervisor, Mario Fusco.

In 2018, the EGLE was given a budget of only $397,215. The state is reported to have more than 2,500 dams which are inspected on three-, four- or five-year cycles.

Other Dam Infrastructure News

Last month, officials at the Waimea Community Dam site in Lee Valley, New Zealand, uncovered more issues at its construction site, which induced a cost blow out of roughly $25 million, among other concerns.

According to Waimea Water, the project involves building a concrete-face rock filled dam that, once finished, will stand 53 meters (roughly 174 feet) high and measure 220 meters long. The project intends to use 430,000 meters-cubed of rock to build the infrastructure, which will contain a lake capable of reaching 13 billion liters (3.4 billion gallons) of water, or roughly over 100 years’ worth of the region’s water supply.

At the end of January, state officials reported that initial repairs on the Cave Creek Dam at Nevada’s Cave Lake State Park in Ely, had been finished, marking the completion of the first phase of project’s rehabilitation plan.

The project is being conducted by the Nevada Department of Wildlife, in coordination with the Nevada Division of Water Resources and the Nevada Division of State Parks.

Having commenced repair operations in October 2019, the Nevada Department of Wildlife first closed the reservoir temporarily so that water levels could be safely drained by roughly one-third of its current surface area. The endeavor not only provided increased safety, but also allowed for better access to work on stabilizing the structure.

By the end of January, officials reported that crews had installed a new gravel path next to the closed boat ramp—a ramp which will continue to stay closed throughout the five-year rehabilitation project—to provide the only safe entry point. The single-entry point is a result of the unstable shoreline.

That same month, crews began work on what will be a $400 million five-year endeavor to raise the Folsom Dam and surrounding earth wing dams and dikes by 3.5 feet in Sacramento, California. The endeavor is slated to help protect 440,000 downstream residents living in metropolitan Sacramento—considered to be one of the highest urban flood-risk areas in the country.

The project is expected to be complete by 2025.


Tagged categories: Accidents; Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC); Flood Barrier; Health and safety; Infrastructure; Locks and dams; NA; North America; Program/Project Management; Rehabilitation/Repair; Safety

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