U.S. District Judge for the Western District of Michigan Paul L. Maloney Judge determined Monday that Lee Mueller, former owner of mid-Michigan dams, is liable for $120 million for environmental damages incurred when the dam failed on May 19, 2020.

Not everyone agrees, however, that Mueller and the company he owned, Boyce Hydroelectric, were entirely responsible for the catastrophe.

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“The district court judgment rightly highlights how Lee Mueller, the owner of Boyce Hydro at the time the dams failed, was negligent in maintaining and operating the Edenville and Sanford dams safely and responsibly,” Jason Hayes, environmental policy director at the Midland-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy, told The Midwesterner.

“However, the attention surrounding the ruling appears to gloss over the fact that the state government played an equally important role in the dam’s failures. The state required Boyce Hydro to raise the water levels in Wixom Lake to the court-ordered height before the multi-day rainstorm, which caused the level of Wixom Lake to hit a record high,” Hayes added.

The State of Michigan had already appropriated $200 million to mitigate damage to an estimated 2,500 homes from the resulting flood. More than 1,500 homes were damaged beyond repair, and 11,000 residents were evacuated after heavy rains dumped up to eight inches of precipitation in Gladwin County and nearly five inches of rain in Midland County over the three-day period from May 17 to May 19.

The deluge caused a 900-foot section of the earthen embankment of the Edenville Dam to wash away, overwhelming the Sanford Dam downriver.

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According to Maloney’s Order on Default Judgment against Boyce Hydro and Mueller, the judge granted summary judgment on a documents prepared by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Supervisor Jeff Jolley and DNR Fisheries Analyst Elle Gulotty. According to Jolley, the flood resulted in $21 million in damages to the Tittabawassee River ecosystem. Gulotty calculated the floods were responsible for $90 million in damages to the state’s freshwater mussel ecosystem. Maloney assessed another $9 million for violating the state’s Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act.

The remaining $8,825,000.00 in relief stems from violations of NREPA Parts 31, 301, 303, and 315. The Court finds Plaintiffs’ testimony credible as to the damages

Hayes explained that EGLE assumed dam jurisdiction after the Federal Energy Regulatory Committee revoked Boyce’s hydroelectric license and the environmental agency “appeared to prioritize environmental concerns over spillway capacity.”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer released a statement late Tuesday morning that celebrated Maloney’s decision.

“In 2020, after historic flooding and dam failures, we made a promise to the community to do whatever it takes to make them whole again and hold bad actors accountable for the devastating damage,”.

“It was incredible to see neighbors helping each other with food and shelter, contractors working quickly to repair roads and bridges, and the legislature coming together to secure $200 million to rebuild the dams. I want to thank Attorney General Nessel for leading this years-long effort to bring justice on behalf of the thousands of Michiganders who’ve suffered in the aftermath of the dam failure. In tough times, we come together as Michiganders to support each other.”