West Michigan dam's mismanaged drawdown choked river and threated public safety, state says

The state of Michigan sued the owner and operator of a hydroelectric dam, alleging that its mismanaged drawdown of a lake to do repairs created sediment that has choked a 30-mile stretch of the Kalamazoo River, impeded recreational use and threatened public safety.

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in Ingham County court, seeks compensation for damages and fines along with an order to restore the ecosystems of the river and Morrow Lake and clean up sediment deposits that in some places are 12 feet deep. The defendants are Eagle Creek Renewable Energy and its subsidiary STS Hydropower, the owner and operator of the dam in Kalamazoo County’s Comstock Township.

"The lack of urgency by the companies to address these hazards left no other alternative than to take this civil action," Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said in a statement.

Liesl Clark, director of the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, said it prefers to work cooperatively to ensure prompt, effective cleanups, but "in this case the responsible party has not fulfilled their obligations to the law and the community."

The firms’ parent company is Ontario Power Generation, which is owned by the government of Ontario, Canada, according to the suit.

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In a statement, STS Hydropower said the emergency drawdown of the lake — which began in the fall of 2020 — enabled repairs that eliminated the risk of a dam failure that could have caused disastrous flooding. It said it reduced the drawdown’s depth at the direction of state agencies and released water at a reduced rate until refilling the lake in early 2021.

STS said it had been in settlement discussions with the state for over a year but was sued almost five months after their last contact.

"We are still open to a fair resolution — in court or otherwise — that takes into account all the circumstances and the best interest of everyone involved," the company said.

The suit alleges the sediment has trapped deer and, in one case, a man who had to be rescued. It also has reduced water quality, smothered critical habitat for wildlife and restricted public boat access to the river, according to the state.