Feds fine dam owners $15M for safety violations after 2020 mid-Michigan flooding

11,000 residents displaced in May 2020 after mid-Michigan dams breached

A portion of Jones Road in Billings, Mich., is completely gone Thursday, May 21, 2020, after it was decimated by flooding caused by dam failures. (Katy Kildee/Midland Daily News via AP) (Katy Kildee)

Hydroelectric dam owner Boyce Hydro Power, LLC has been fined millions for safety violations after dam failures caused catastrophic floods near Midland.

On Thursday, April 15, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) announced a $15 million penalty against Boyce Hydro Power for violating “numerous FERC staff orders and license provisions addressing safety of project facilities and surrounding communities.”

On May 20, 2020, about 11,000 mid-Michigan residents were forced to evacuate their homes after the Edenville and Sanford dams were breached, causing a massive flooding emergency in the region. Photos captured by Local 4 shows the devastation to homes, roads, vehicles and more in Midland County at that time.

Ahead of the disaster, Boyce Hydro Power is accused of repeating violations throughout the 14 years that it has been authorized to operate the Edenville dam. FERC previously said that it had repeatedly raised concerns over the dam’s ability to prevent flooding during extreme conditions because of its inadequate spillway capacity.

Local 4 Defenders found that FERC officials revoked the hydro power generating license for the dam and gave the regulatory authority to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy in 2018. An inspection document from EGLE in 2018 states the dam’s two concrete spillway showed signs of moderate deterioration but appeared to be stable and functioning normally. Investigators noted a series of problems and citations, but no major action was taken afterward.

Boyce Hydro Power was supposed to provide a detailed plan to EGLE in March 2020 about how to fix the issues, but officials say that report was never given to the state.

“In the 18-month window we had this, we acted pretty aggressively on it,” said EGLE spokesperson Hugh McDiarmid Jr. “This was a longstanding, decades old problem with a 96-year-old structure that we inherited a long time ago.”

Related: Review concludes Michigan’s Dam Safety Unit is understaffed, constrained by time and budget

The federal commission said in 2018 that its primary concern about the Edenville dam was its inability to handle “the probable maximum flood” -- the type of event that could be expected from “the most severe combination of critical meteorologic and hydrologic conditions that is reasonably possible” in the area.

FERC guidelines require U.S. dams to be able to withstand such a flood or have enough spillway capacity to prevent reservoirs from rising dangerously high. The Edenville dam’s spillway capacity was only about 50 percent of the probable maximum flood, FERC said.

The commission’s 2018 order says that Boyce Hydro “knowingly and willfully refused to comply with major aspects of its license ... with the result that public safety has been put at risk, and the public has been denied the benefits, particularly project recreation, to which it is entitled” over the last decade.

“The record demonstrates that there is no reason to believe that Boyce Hydro will come into compliance,” the commission added. The company “has displayed a history of obfuscation and outright disregard of its obligations.”

Boyce Hydro Power has 30 days to either pay the $15 million fine or to provide bankruptcy documentation that would establish a different payment method due to their financial standing.

Following the disaster, Boyce Hydro Power was required to provide reports on the status of their dams and infrastructure, which federal officials say was never received. The state of Michigan also officially ordered the company in September to alter the Tobacco River spillway near Midland, since the company was not meeting any deadlines without an order.

More: Frustrated Michigan officials issue emergency order to Edenville Dam owners ignoring deadlines

Last month, the Michigan Dam Safety Task Force was preparing to make its dam safety recommendations that would require legislative approval to reduce the threat of dam failures.

More: Michigan task force set to make dam safety recommendations

You can read the entire April 15, 2021 document from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission below.

Related: Crews to lower spillway connected to failed Michigan dam

About the Authors:

Cassidy Johncox is a senior digital news editor covering stories across the spectrum, with a special focus on politics and community issues.