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MI Court of Appeals says Edenville Dam case will go forward

 The Tittabawassee River flooded the Sanford Dam last year. Construction will start later this month to repair the dam.
Brett Dahlberg
WCMU file
The Tittabawassee River no longer flows over the Sanford Dam after a flood damaged the dam in 2020. Now, the river flows around the embankment and pools at its bottom.

A slew of lawsuits related to the 2020 Edenville Dam disaster will be heard by the Michigan Court of Claims. A unanimous opinion from the Michigan Court of Appeals says the case will go forward.

The decision sends the cases back to the Court of Claims to determine whether the state shares in liability for the disaster.

The lawsuits claim the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Environment Great Lakes and Energy put environmental protection ahead of public safety.

The cases, as outlined in the opinion, say the state failed to take actions that could have averted the dam failure and the government is responsible for illegally “taking” the lost property. It is also known as “inverse condemnation.”

The opinion, authored by Judge Kristina Robinson Garrett, says the residents who lost their property in the flood, deserve the chance to make their argument.

“While discovery may reveal facts contradicting these allegations, our role now is to accept these allegations as true and determine whether they state a viable claim of inverse condemnation,” wrote Garrett.

“Plaintiffs alleged that defendants pressured Boyce to keep water levels high to protect aquatic life, prioritizing that interest at the expense of the safety of people and property. Accepting these allegations as true, they suggest that defendants, through their operational control of the dam, put the dam to a public use in their pursuit of environmental protection.”

The state pins the blame solely on Boyce Hydro, the dam owner, which has filed for bankruptcy. A statement from the Attorney General’s office says blame should not be placed on state regulators who were doing their job.

“The State argues not only that the evidence contradicts the plaintiff’s version of events, but that the evidence shows it was the private dam operator who was at fault for the dam’s failure, not the state regulatory agencies,” said the statement.

The attorney general’s office says it’s deciding what to do next. It could appeal to the Michigan Supreme Court.

Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network.