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MI Team Completes Dam Inspection

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

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Earlier this month, a group of Michigan engineers from consulting firm TRC Engineers Michigan Inc. presented its 46-page visual inspection report on the failure of the Edenville Dam.

The report has since been filed in the Western U.S. District Court of Michigan as part of a court action between the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Boyce Hydro representatives.

Michigan Dam Failures

On 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, Michigan, about rising flood waters and associated risks it posed to the nearby dam infrastructures.

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.

According to reports, in 2017, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission began the process of revoking Boyce Hydro’s license Edenville Dam due to non-compliance issues that included spillway capacity and the inability to pass the most severe flood reasonably possible.

However, issues with the dam’s need for a larger spillway are dated as far back as 1999, when the previous owners informed Boyce Hydro during its transfer in 2004. Yet, those fixes were never made as 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.

In a September 2018 inspection report, the dam and its spillways were in "fair structural condition" and posed no imminent threat.

At the time of the evacuation, Whitmer estimated that downtown Midland could be under approximately 9 feet of water within 12-15 hours. 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.

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.

Following what has since been described as the largest flood event in the history of mid-Michigan, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced that an investigation into the operators of the dams would be launched and legal recourse pursued.

While no injuries or fatalities related to the incident were recounted, the Detroit Free Press reports that the failures caused more than $175 million in damage, with some 2,500 homes and businesses damaged or completely destroyed.

Additionally, the FERC also directed that dam-owner Boyce Hydro Power LLC 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.

In January, 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.

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.

Independent Review

In mid-June, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy announced that it had chosen a six-person independent forensic investigation team made up of experts in geotechnical engineering, hydraulics, dam safety and dam design. The team has since been approved by the FERC.

Investigative team members include:

  • John France, President of JWF Consulting LLC (Denver);
  • Irfan Alvi, President and Chief Engineer of Alvi Associates (Towson, Maryland);
  • Henry Falvey, President of Henry Falvey and Associates Inc. (Conifer, Colorado);
  • Steve Higinbotham, a hydraulic structures engineering consultant;
  • Arthur Miller, a professor emeritus of civil and environmental engineering from Penn State University; and
  • Jennifer Williams, a licensed professional engineer.

Previously, France, Alvi and Falvey participated in the investigation of the 2017 failure at the Oroville Dam in California.

"With the knowledge and experience these professionals bring to the independent investigation, I am confident that we will get a clear picture of what went wrong with the two dams and why," said EGLE Director Liesl Clark. "Transparency is extremely important as this process moves forward, and EGLE is ready to provide any information necessary to help get answers to this tragedy."

The team’s investigation and submission of a final report is slated to take up to 18 months to complete. The investigation is expected to begin after the team finalizes a contract with Boyce Hydro, who will reportedly cover the total cost of the investigation.

The Lawsuit

Filed by the Department of Attorney General on behalf of the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy and the Department of Natural Resources, in the 30th District Circuit Court in Ingham County, Michigan, state officials accused Boyce Hydro and its affiliates for the mismanagement of the structures and disregard for public safety. The lawsuit was announced earlier this month.

The listed defendants include Lee Mueller; Boyce Michigan, LLC; Edenville Hydro Property, LLC; Boyce Hydro Power LLC; Boyce Hydro LLC; WD Boyce Trust 2350; WD Boyce Trust 3649; WD Boyce Trust 3650; Stephen B. Hultberg; and Michele G. Mueller.

"For well over a decade the defendants violated federal dam safety laws and put profits ahead of safety—all the while pocketing the money they earned through the use of the public's waterways," reads the suit. "Defendants' malfeasance culminated in the catastrophic failures of the Edenville and Sanford dams.”

According to WWMT-TV Newschannel 3, the state is seeking compensation, civil fines and the cleanup and restoration of damages caused by the dam failures and subsequent flooding.

The same week, the state ordered Boyce Hydro to complete its emergency inspection report of the Edenville Dam by June 19. Remaining repair efforts have also been ordered to be completed by June 24 for public safety purposes. The inspection reportedly took place on June 10.

Inspection Results, License Revoke

On June 10, TRC geotechnical engineering practice leader Shawn McGee and structural engineer Chris Hay, along with Greg Uhl, chief operator of Boyce Hydro and Dan DeVaun, a dam engineer from the EGLE dam safety unit completed a visual inspection of the failed Edenville Dam

According to Midland Daily News, Daniel Pradel, Alan Esser and Adam Lobbestael—representatives from the Embankments, Dams, and Slopes Technical Committee of the Geo-Institute of the American Society of Civil Engineers—were also in attendance and walked the entire length of dam with TRC.

As a result of the inspection, officials have given the remains of the structure a “high” potential hazard classification. In its report, TRC has also included a list of recommended remedial efforts to be made by Boyce Hydro ranking from recommended action to critical and non-critical action/maintenance.

Some of these efforts include the critical removal of debris within the left embankment of the dam's Tittabawassee section, in addition to establishing a new drainage/river channel.

"An extensive hydraulic model will need to be developed for the drainage basin so that a new river section, flow capacity and alignment can be determined," states the report.

Other notes include, “"Until the left embankment—Tobacco can be repaired to satisfactory condition, as an interim measure it is recommended that a temporary sheet pile wall be installed from the existing fishing pier located approximately 275 feet east of M-30 to protect the embankment from further erosion by moving the floodway away from the dam by reestablishing the original path of the stream.”

Since the report’s publication, officials with the FERC announced that they had revoked Boyce Hydro’s hydropower generating license in an effort to “shock” the owners into compliance with recommended maintenance and repairs.


Tagged categories: Accidents; Failure analysis; Health & Safety; Health and safety; Infrastructure; Inspection; Lawsuits; Locks and dams; NA; North America; Project Management; Rehabilitation/Repair; Safety

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