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Planning and training key to preparation

My heart aches for Midland area residents who were impacted by this week’s devastating floods.

Days of storms in the area led to the failure of two dams and the record level of flooding that forced the evacuation of 10,000 residents there.

Thankfully no one died from the flooding.

This week’s failure of the Edenville and Sanford Dams begs an obvious question – could the same hold true of the Thunder Bay River dams?

Can you imagine the destruction to downtown Alpena if any one of Alpena County’s three hydroelectric dams – the Seven Mile, Four Mile and Ninth Street dams, were to be breached?

That question was on the mind of Alpena County Emergency Services Coordinator Mark Hall Wednesday when he informed county commissioners that Midland’s experience should serve as a warning to officials here to do everything possible in ensuring a similar situation would never occur here. “These things can happen and obviously, we need to be prepared to mitigate and reduce those risks,” Hall said. “We can’t do anything about the weather, but this has sure woke me up.”

The dams on the Thunder Bay watershed are managed by Eagle Creek Renewable Energy and in addition to the three dams in Alpena County, there is another in Hillman. The four dams originally were built and operated by Alpena Power Co.

According to the Eagle Creek website, the system delivers over 32 million kilowatt-hours of clean electricity into the Midwest power grid in a typical year. In addition to the four dams, the system also includes two storage reservoirs – Fletcher Pond and Hubbard Lake.

Every three to five years hydroelectric dams in Michigan are inspected and given a grade. Hall told commissioners he was not sure the year of the last inspection. The Thunder Bay River dams operate under a license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC Project No. 2404) valid through 2038.

The dam licensing and inspections have become the center of some controversy in Midland, where allegedly one of the dams had a questionable history of safety investigations.

Both Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and State Sen. Jim Stamas, whose hometown is Midland, promised a full investigation into how the tragedy occurred and what past inspections had uncovered at the first dam which broke.

“I am brokenhearted to see what is happening in my hometown of Midland and to communities in my Senate district,” Stamas said. ” My prayers go out to the thousands impacted by this tragedy. And my appreciation goes out to the many first responders guiding people to safety and shelter. Without question, their actions have saved lives.”

That kind of response is what Hall wants to ensure would happen here as well. He indicated that as a result of Midland, local emergency personnel would pay more attention to the area’s dams in the future and train more for emergency evacuation.

“Just as the pandemic brought attention to the need to review our plans, I think this will cause a review of the management of dams too,” he said.

I believe it will, as Hall already has identified the need. I’m sure before long he will follow through and work to ensure the chances are much less for a similar situation to occur here.

Bill Speer can be reached at 989-354-3111, ext. 311, or bspeer@thealpenanews.com. Follow him on Twitter @billspeer13.

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