Republicans try to link the Kalamazoo River crisis to the Edenville Dam fiasco

LANSING, MI — Michigan House Republicans this week attempted to draw a line between the state’s management of the impoundment levels behind Edenville Dam before its catastrophic failure in 2020 and a bill under consideration that would expand its power to issue emergency cleanup orders when natural resources are harmed.

Republicans on the House Natural Resources Committee asked several questions about water levels in the Kalamazoo River during a Thursday, Feb. 17 hearing on legislation introduced in response to an ongoing ecological crisis that began two years ago. years by a surprise drawdown of the Kalamazoo County Dam.

The bill, HB 5661, sponsored by Rep. Julie Rogers, D-Kalamazoo, accompanies a Senate version that was heard last week in which Republican senators expressed shock and dismay at the images of the impact of approximately 369,000 cubic meters of impoundment sediment. a on the Kalamazoo River below Morrow Dam.

The bills follow a breakdown in cleanup negotiations between dam owner Eagle Creek Renewable Energy and the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE), which says the company , a wholly-owned subsidiary of Ontario Power Generation of Canada, won to continue with efforts to dredge and clean up the river.

The state says Eagle Creek drained its 1,000-acre Morrow Lake Reservoir with little warning or sediment control in November 2019. Since then, impoundment sludge has blanketed the gravel bed and wooded areas. , reshaped river banks, smothered wildlife habitat, impeded public access and created a hazard from which people were rescued.

Anglers and natural resource officials say fish populations and spawning have been badly damaged. Mudflats the size of football pitches have accumulated in some areas.

While Senate Republicans expressed some outrage and sympathy, House Republicans were more circumspect; think about the difference between sediment in a dam and a river, question the relationship to water levels, and liken the issue to a dispute between EGLE and the owner of the Edenville dam over water levels. impoundment on Lake Wixom prior to the catastrophic flooding of the Tittabawassee River.

“The situation that occurred at Edenville Dam on Lake Wixom (…) was entirely due to the department keeping the water in the lake high to keep the mussels contained and safe,” said Rep. Rodney Wakeman, Township of R-Saginaw. , who earlier wondered if sediment from the Kalamazoo River was causing low water conditions.

Wakeman asked if Rogers’ bill would help EGLE prevent a disaster like Edenville in advance. Travis Boeskool, EGLE legislative liaison, said it would.

“If we see an imminent risk of failure, or something threatening to harm the natural resources of the state, that gives us the authority to issue this emergency order,” Boeskool said.

Water levels were also on the minds of others.

“So sediment on one side of the dam is not a problem, but sediment on the other side of the dam is a problem?” Rep. Gary Eisen, R-St. Clair Township, asked Rogers. “It looks like it has always been there. Every lake and stream contains sediment.

Rogers replied that it was the change in location – from a 1,000-acre lake to a narrow river – that caused much of the problem. “There are now 8ft, 10ft areas full of mud and muck where the boats actually get stuck,” she said.

“Because of the lack of water depth,” Eisen interjected. “So if the water was higher, it would probably be easier for the boats to get around.”

Later, as Kalamazoo River Alliance fisherman Herb Theodore showed footage of the impact on the river, Eisen suggested that the Kalamazoo sewage treatment plant was contributing to the sediment problem in the affected area downstream. from Morrow Dam. Theodore explained that the sediment came from the bottom of Morrow Lake, which was sucked into the dam during the drawdown and subsequent rains.

Once the drawdown began, the river, which enters the reservoir at N. 35th Street, began to channel and “those channels, as they broke down, moved from side to side , causing further erosion and leading to more mud in the water,” Theodore mentioned. Boating has become dangerous downstream due to unexpected deposits now.

“You could go up the river and run on dry ground because the normal channel has been disrupted,” Theodore said, in response to a question from Wakeman about water levels around Mayors Riverfront Park. “It’s incredible.”

Eisen returned to water levels after testimony from Kalamazoo River Watershed Director Cheryl Vosburg. “Is the problem that the water is too low or too high?” He asked.

A visibly confused Vosburg replied that water from the river was moved by sediment released from a holding pond, which “keeps moving downstream.”

“And that’s part of the problem because it’s an ongoing disaster. So as it continues to move further and further downstream, it degrades more and more habitat,” she said.

Vosburg said river advocates want to see targeted dredging by Eagle Creek, potentially using cofferdams or other devices in the river to trap sediment for disposal. “We would like to see the larger deposits dredged immediately,” she said.

So far, only about 2,000 cubic meters of sediment has been dredged from the river. Eagle Creek completed a small dredging project on a side channel in Comstock Township last spring, but did not follow through on its promise to dredge two larger areas of the river and further map the deposits.

A survey report commissioned by the company last year found deposits 11 feet thick in some places. Others were 2,500 feet long.

Eagle Creek says the 2019 drawdown was triggered by an inspection report showing the need for “emergency” repairs to the Morrow Dam gate, which it acquired in 2017. Those repairs began in December 2020 and the tank was then filled.

The company says it was consulting with the state during the withdrawal, but EGLE, in a 2020 Notice of Violation, said “the state was not consulted before, but rather after or at best concurrently before the start withdrawal”.

Neither EGLE nor Eagle Creek has officially said much about what caused the collapse of dredging negotiations last year. The state threatened legal action and further meetings were not scheduled. EGLE executives told MLive that the dam does not generate electricity and should be “repaired to the point where it is safe and usable, or removed”.

The state says the bill would broaden its enforcement power and allow it to speed up cleanup in situations where a polluter doesn’t want to get the job done without going to court.

“I just really want to emphasize that our interest here in this bill is that it adds a tool to our toolbox to help us tackle the most egregious violations of the laws that we currently already have in the books,” Boeskool said.

Jerrod Sanders, deputy director of EGLE’s water resources division, told committee members that it was “fairly predictable that there would be some pretty catastrophic sediment discharges” from the opening of the gates in the Morrow Dam.

The legislation would allow EGLE to step in and issue emergency orders if it sees a dam about to fail or cause significant damage, or to remedy “a failing levee that is holding back contaminated sediment”. , said Sanders – an apparent reference to the Detroit 2019 River dock collapse. “That would be another proactive situation that we could step into.”

Eagle Creek did not participate in Thursday’s hearing. Through a public relations company, she released the same statement she released last week in response to the Senate hearing, in which the company said it remained committed to negotiations with EGLE “provided the final settlement reflects our efforts to maintain public safety.”

Consumers Energy, DTE Energy and the Michigan Manufacturers Association (MMA) submitted written statements to the House committee indicating that each wanted to see “improvements to the bill,” according to committee chairman Rep. Gary Howell, R- Lapeer.

Related stories:

Senators ‘shocked’ by Kalamazoo River crisis

Bill targets Kalamazoo River sediment crisis

EGLE threatens to sue cleanup talks stall

Man rescued from waist deep in river mud

Morrow Dam owner cited for ‘erratic’ flow fluctuations

Dam owner says he will increase sediment dredging

Increase disposal of dam sludge, urge lawmakers

369,000 cubic meters of sediment passed through the dam

11,400 sludge dump trucks pollute the river

Filling of Morrow Lake begins after dam repair

PCB cleanup begins on a stretch of river choked with lake mud

Kalamazoo River ‘looks like a mud hole’ amid drawdown

Michigan’s Dangerous Dams ‘Something We’ll Struggle With’

1967 Chevy Impala found in muddy lake

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