LANSING, Mich (AP) — A lawsuit that accuses the state of Michigan of failing to regulate and enforce safety regulations on a dam that failed, causing an estimated $200 million in damages and destroying 2,500 structures, may not be resolved soon, an attorney representing nearly 300 clients said Monday.
Attorney Ven Johnson joined affected residents for an update on litigation over the Edenville Dam in Midland County days before the one-year anniversary of its failure. The Edenville dam's failure caused another dam to fail just two hours later, and damage was widespread.
No lives were lost, but the small village of Sanford lost 10% of its residents and 78% of its businesses, Village Councilman Carl Hamann said.
“Some of them are coming back and some of them aren't," Hamann said. “It’s been very passionate for me because I’ve got a lot of people that I see that went through some real horrendous situations and I just want people to know that we’re coming back, and we’ll have a celebration this week to commemorate the losses we've seen from one year ago.”
Johnson's law firm in June 2020 sued the ownership of the Edenville Dam, which had a history of safety violations, according to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Owner Boyce Hydro's license for the nearly century-old dam was revoked in 2018 for continued failure to address safety regulations, including some measures to withstand floods. The state then took over regulation of the dam.
Boyce Hydro was fined $15 million for safety violations by FERC in April, but Boyce was approved for bankruptcy earlier this year. Johnson said he isn't hopeful for much of a payout from Boyce.
The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) which was granted regulatory authority of the dam, said in a 2018 report that though there were concerns about the dam's spillway capacity, the dam was in “fair structural condition” and it found “no deficiencies that would be expected to cause immediate failure”.
Johnson said with all the warnings dam regulators gave Boyce, the state ultimately did not properly regulate the dam to ensure the safety of nearby residents and their properties.
“What we should have done is we should have pushed that button and gone to court and... forced a sale to get somebody in there who’s going to make the fix, but in 2018 when the state of Michigan took over, they knew all this, they knew they had a bad actor, they had already gone through this stuff with FERC because the state of Michigan was involved,” Johnson said. “We should have been on this, and we blew it.”
EGLE did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment.
Johnson argued his case against the state in Michigan's Court of Claims last November. He said he expects the state to appeal if he prevails, a process that could extend litigation into 2024, he said.
Johnson’s clients represent just a fraction of those affected by the flood. Several lawsuits have been filed against Boyce Hydro and the state seeking compensation for some 3,000 claimants.
Anna Liz Nichols is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.
Anna Liz Nichols, The Associated Press