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Peters, Stabenow blast private ownership of major infrastructure in wake of Midland flood

Detroit Free Press logo Detroit Free Press 2 days ago Chris Solari, Detroit Free Press
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MIDLAND — The private ownership and a lack of required repairs of two dams that  caused massive flooding of Wixom and Sanford lakes is a significant frustration of Michigan’s two U.S. senators.

Both Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow issued strong rebukes Saturday for the owners of the Edenville and Stanford dams, whose failures earlier this week caused water from the Tittabawassee River to flood neighboring communities and render two man-made lakes nothing more than mud pits.

Debbie Stabenow et al. that are standing in front of a box: Senator Gary Peters listens as Senator Debbie Stabenow takes questions regarding flooding in Midland and Sanford on May 23, 2020. © Kirthmon F. Dozier, Detroit Free Press Senator Gary Peters listens as Senator Debbie Stabenow takes questions regarding flooding in Midland and Sanford on May 23, 2020.

“I think most people would be surprised to know that the majority of our dams are privately owned,” Stabenow said during a news conference Saturday afternoon at the Midland Law Enforcement Center. “And let me be clear — this owner slow-walked and fought federal regulators. Stonewalled for years. … I think that's very important to realize — this privately owned dam could have been addressed before if the owner had stepped up to do it when he was being told that there were problems for years.”

a car parked on a beach: Volunteers clear debris from the streets of Sanford on May 23, 2020. The Sanford dam that held the Tittabawassee river failed causing massive flooding destroying homes and businesses. © Kirthmon F. Dozier, Detroit Free Press Volunteers clear debris from the streets of Sanford on May 23, 2020. The Sanford dam that held the Tittabawassee river failed causing massive flooding destroying homes and businesses.

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The Edenville, Sanford, Smallwood and Secord dams along the Tittabawassee are operated by Boyce Hydro LLC. The company was still generating hydropower at three of the dams as of Tuesday's breaches. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission revoked Boyce's hydropower license at the Edenville dam in September 2018 over persistent, unaddressed safety problems — especially that the dam did not have sufficient spillway capabilities to safely drain a flood situation.

On Friday, Boyce Hydro issued a statement pointing a finger at the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy  (EGLE) for the failure. The dam owners claimed EGLE cracked down on its reduction of Wixom Lake levels the past two winters, and, along with Wixom Lake property owners, "pressured" the dam operator to restore higher water on the impoundment, or reservoir, the past two springs.

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The raising of Wixom Lake to its "summer level" was completed May 3.

a group of people on a boat in the water: The Sanford dam sits damaged after failing to hold back the Tittabawassee River on May 23, 2020. © Kirthmon F. Dozier, Detroit Free Press The Sanford dam sits damaged after failing to hold back the Tittabawassee River on May 23, 2020.

"First and foremost, we have to be focused on the short term," Peters said. "But we have to make sure these kinds of disasters don't happen in the future. This is something that could have been prevented. We had dams that were clearly weakened." 

Peters said private ownership of the dams complicates handling the situation.

“Obviously, if it's publicly owned, that's a different set of rules, and we know exactly who to point the finger to that they're not putting in the money,” Peters said. “So when you have a private operator, we'll have to have regulations to make sure that private operator keeps those dams or other facilities up to those standards. And there needs to be penalties if they don't.

“I think it has to be obvious, clearly from this example, It has to be stricter. We had a dam here that was failing for a number of years and was able to continue to fail for a number of years without substantive action. That can't happen again.”

Stabenow also called for “major investments at the state level and federal level in infrastructure for the future.”

“I hope we decide that we're going to be very serious about building and rebuilding and doing it in the future,” she said, “so as Sen. Peters says, this doesn’t happen again.”

John Moolenaar et al. standing in a room: Congressman John Mollenaar takes questions regarding flooding in Midland and Sanford on May 23, 2020. © Kirthmon F. Dozier, Detroit Free Press Congressman John Mollenaar takes questions regarding flooding in Midland and Sanford on May 23, 2020.

The two Democratic senators joined U.S. Rep. John Moolenaar, R-Midland, Midland Mayor Maureen Donker, James K. Joseph of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other state and local leaders to take an aerial tour of the devastation caused by flooding that began Tuesday  when the Edenville Dam and Sanford Dam were breached and failed structurally.

The politicians set aside partisanship to thank both sides of the aisle with their rapid response to declare the area a state and federal disaster and laying the groundwork for getting aid to  impacted mid-Michigan communities.

“I want to thank President (Donald) Trump for signing the declaration recently, as well as Gov. (Gretchen) Whitmer for requesting this declaration,” Moolenaar said. “I know these are early steps, but we’re encouraged by the progress that’s being made.”

Joseph, who is based in Chicago and serves the Midwest Region, said FEMA officials arrived in Michigan on  Friday and met with Whitmer in Lansing before arriving in Midland County. Because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Joseph said much of the federal assessment of the area will be done virtually rather than with on-the-ground observations, though he said inspectors would make site visits as warranted.

“When President Trump signed the emergency declaration several days ago, that allows federal resources to provide any assistance they need as they’re in the response phase of this event,” Jones said. “And that’s a very important distinction from what a major disaster declaration is, which is what we’ll be doing as we continue to assess the damage.”

a group of people riding on the back of a truck: Matt Schultz clears debris in Sanford on May 23, 2020. The Sanford dam that held the Tittabawassee river failed causing massive flooding destroying homes and businesses. © Kirthmon F. Dozier, Detroit Free Press Matt Schultz clears debris in Sanford on May 23, 2020. The Sanford dam that held the Tittabawassee river failed causing massive flooding destroying homes and businesses.

Jones said typical responses to such significant events as the flooding would involve teams of FEMA, Michigan State Police and community members “going neighborhood to neighborhood, and if we’re assessing homes, going door to door.” He said the “vast majority” of those assessments will be done with the help of State Police aerial photography and local communities’ visuals and observations.

“We will not be going door to door," he said. "We are going to respect No. 1 the cleanup efforts the impacted families are going through, we’re going to respect their personal space. And we also want to ensure we’re protecting the health of our FEMA, state and local government employees as well.”

Stabenow said she and Peters, who is the ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that oversees FEMA, already had been in touch regularly with Jones about the ongoing response to the coronavirus. She said they're  “fighting on two fronts right now.”

Said Peters: “Just think of being upended like that at a time when we’re experiencing a pandemic. It’s just unimaginable.”

Free Press reporter Keith Matheny contributed to this report. Contact Chris Solari: csolari@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Peters, Stabenow blast private ownership of major infrastructure in wake of Midland flood

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