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Michigan dam safety unit now ‘fully staffed’ -- with 5 employees

Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy

With a new hire this month, Michigan’s Dam Safety Unit staff has doubled in number since the failure of dams along the Tittabawassee River last May.

There are now five full-time employees in the unit, which is responsible for inspecting hundreds of dams across the state.

Luke Trumble, the unit’s supervisor, said he’s putting his newest hire to work right away.

“Baptism by fire. We’re throwing him right in,” Trumble said.

The five workers inspect about 300 of the more than 2,000 dams in Michigan. For about 1,100 other dams, they’re responsible for reviewing inspection reports and emergency plans, ensuring compliance with dam safety rules, and approving any changes to the structures.

“It’s a lot,” Trumble said.

In the runup to the failure of the Tittabawassee River dams, the staff -- which was then just two dam inspectors -- simply could not keep pace with the workload, Trumble said.

Now, with twice as many workers, “It means that we will double our efforts,” he said. Staff will be able to find and fix problems with a dam more quickly.

“I think that you can rest a little more easy that we’re out there, and there’s eyes on it, identifying the deficiencies,” Trumble said.

Still, the increase is less than what a state task force and the American Society of Civil Engineers have recommended.

Trumble said he’s hopeful that the Dam Safety Unit’s budget -- which has also doubled since last year to support the new staff -- will continue to grow.

“We’re fully staffed given our current budget allocation,” he said. “We’re hoping to get to the recommended levels in the coming years.”

An investment in dam safety now could avert “a grave situation” in future years, the state’s task force found earlier this year.

More than 150 dams in Michigan are classified as “high hazard” by the federal government, meaning that if they failed, it would “probably cause loss of human life.”

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