Mid-Michigan homeowners sue state over Edenville dam break, allege neglect, mismanagement

Four Midland County homeowners have filed a class-action lawsuit against Michigan, alleging the state failed to do enough to keep residents safe by neglecting duties to repair a dam that broke last week.

In a 28-page complaint filed in the Michigan Court of Claims, residents who owned homes along the Tittabawassee River said they were seeking damages and other relief due to mismanagement by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE).

The Edenville Dam, which encased more than 21 billion gallons of water in the now-dried up Wixom Lake, broke last week after heavy weekend rain drove water levels from the river up. Records indicate federal regulators had continually cited the structure as in need of repairs and may not be able to mitigate flood-prone conditions.

“By not heeding the specific warnings of federal regulators that Edenville Dam was structurally unsound and at risk of failing, then knowingly allowing the dam to further deteriorate until it failed catastrophically on May 20, EGLE has deprived the owners of the use of their property without just compensation. That neglect and resulting disaster is a clear violation of the Michigan Constitution,” said plaintiffs attorney Michael Pitt, of Royal Oak law firm Pitt McGehee Palmer Bonanni and Rivers.

Those filing the complaints are residents David and Andrew Krieger, and James and Margaret Sperling, both of whom own adjacent properties along the banks of the river and just south of the Edenville Dam.

The blame game over whose responsibility was it to maintain repairs on the dam started last week. Several reports from federal regulators indicate the dam's owner, Boyce Hydro LLC, neglected to make repairs to the dam and eventually revoked its license in 2018. That means that regulatory control shifted under the state following its revocation.

RELATED: Second lawsuit filed against operators of 2 Mid-Michigan dams 

Before the dam broke, however, Boyce Hydro said it had been warring with the state over the company's decision to reduce water levels in Wixom Lake over concerns of flooding in 2018 and again in 2019. EGLE pushed back on the decision after the first water level reduction killed mussels living in the lake. Both groups eventually filed separate lawsuits at different levels of court.

Last week, class-action lawsuits were filed against both Boyce Hydro and Lee Mueller.

In the most recent lawsuit related to the dam, attorneys representing the Kriegers and Sperlings said even though EGLE doesn't own the dam, "it is legally responsible for ensuring the safety and structural integrity of all public use dams in Michigan."

RELATED: Feds revoked license for failed Edenville dam in 2018 amid concerns it couldn't withstand major flooding

“Michigan law provides a unique avenue for residents to sue the state in its Court of Claims for damages or destruction to their property. This option is not available for lawsuits filed in the federal court. This case is the only one currently pursuing this unique form of legal redress and remedy on behalf of all residents injured by the Edenville Dam disaster,” said Pitt in a press release detailing the complaint.

Most Michigan residents already aware of the state's crumbling infrastructure were introduced to one of its most concerning subjects. The integrity of the state's dams received a C- on its most recent Infrastructure Report Card. Of the state's 2,600 dams, 140 pose a potential "for loss of life and property damage" if they fail. 

Mid-Michigan's flooding forced the evacuation of 10,000 residents and emptied the lake where several lake houses had been built along. It also flooded downtown Midland and piled on a separate public emergency, in addition to the COVID-19 pandemic.