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ASDSO releases review of EGLE's Dam Safety Program, offers 19 recommendations

October 1, 2020

The Association of State Dam Safety Officials’ (ASDSO) review of Michigan’s Dam Safety Unit, presented today at a meeting of the Michigan Dam Safety Task Force, concludes that, when compared to a model program, Michigan’s program is understaffed and constrained by limited time, resources and budget; Michigan’s investments in dam safety have been lacking for decades, which increases the risk to public safety and the environment; and owners of high hazard dams should perform detailed engineering re-evaluations to uncover latent dam safety defects commonly found in aging structures.

The Task Force will analyze the report as part of its review and help state regulators and lawmakers prioritize recommendations to determine which are most necessary and impactful to undertake.

“The ASDSO report acknowledges the decades of underinvestment in infrastructure in Michigan, which includes many dams that, if they failed, would put downstream residents’ lives in jeopardy,” EGLE Director Liesl Clark said. “We, along with the Task Force members, will take a close look at the many thoughtful recommendations in the report and welcome working collaboratively with the Legislature and other stakeholders to strengthen Michigan’s Dam Safety Program while also holding owners accountable for safely operating their dams.”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered the program review as well as a forensic investigation of the failure of the Edenville and Sanford dams in mid-Michigan after days of heavy rain. The flooding displaced nearly 11,000 people and damaged roughly 2,500 structures.

The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy requested the ASDSO’s Peer Review Team perform the in-depth evaluation of its Dam Safety Program, including its mission, objectives, policies, procedures and other factors as well as how the program compares to generally accepted standards of practice for dam safety engineering and management. The team’s report is posted to the Edenville Dam Failure webpage.

The Peer Review Team evaluated EGLE’s program relative to ASDSO’s governing regulations and how a program matches up with ASDSO’s Model Dam Safety Program. The success of any dam safety program, the team said in its report, depends upon adequate program funding; the quality of physical inspections, dedication, and commitment of the regulatory agencies; and especially the due diligence of the dam owner or operator.

The Peer Review Team concluded that while the Dam Safety Program staff “are dedicated, well-educated, experienced engineers that are doing the best they can,” the program should ideally have 11 staff, including three senior dam safety engineers and three junior safety engineers to oversee approximately 1,060 state-regulated dams. Michigan’s program currently has two dam safety engineers and one supervisor with a third dam safety engineer to be hired soon. In the Fiscal Year 2021 state budget signed by Gov. Whitmer on Wednesday there is funding for hiring two more dam safety engineers, which would bring the total to five.

The report noted that Michigan for years has not had rigorous enforcement of dam safety violations, which the team called “commonly accepted practice in Michigan.” It also recommended adding into statute a requirement that owners of aging high hazard dams perform periodic detailed evaluations of their facilities.

The ASDSO report also outlined recommendations changes that would have to be made by the Legislature. It said the Dam Safety Program lacks the authority to require owners to obtain a permit to operate and maintain dams in a safe condition, nor to annually report on maintenance, operation and engineering investigations. Also, there are no requirements for owners to maintain key records, periodic exercising of emergency action plans or for owners of high hazard dams to provide proof of financial responsibility or security for the continued safe operation and maintenance of their dam.

The Peer Review Team also called for a collaborative effort between EGLE, ASDSO and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to simplify the transfer of key information when the state takes over regulation of a former hydroelectric dam. FERC had revoked the hydropower license for Edenville Dam in September 2018 after concerns about repairs that were not made by the dam’s owner, Boyce Hydro Power LLC. The State had to file Freedom of Information Act requests with FERC to obtain key documents and reports about the dam.

The report suggested Michigan follow the examples set by other states including Pennsylvania and New Jersey in offering a revolving loan program to provide grants and low interest loans to public owners of high hazard dams that need rehabilitation. Without investment in dam safety over many decades, the need for maintenance has increased as dams have aged, the report said. “National experience has demonstrated that a state organized and funded program for grants and low interest loans is critical to achieving real progress in rehabilitating publicly owned dams,” the report said.

The report cited The ASCE 2018 Report Card for Michigan’s Infrastructure and the 21st Century Infrastructure Commission Report, which both cited underinvestment in dam maintenance. The ASCE Report Card gave Michigan a grade of C- and said “Michigan must make more progress to address dams in need of repair or removal. Expanded funding is needed to provide additional staffing for the (EGLE) Dam Safety Unit, and for resources for dam owners to address dam repair or dam removal projects.” The Infrastructure Commission Report estimated that Michigan needed $227 million in state funding over 20 years to support maintenance and removal of dams.

The Task Force will evaluate the ASCE Scorecard in the same manner as the ASDSO report and other pertinent data and resources to develop recommendations for EGLE.

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