Judge enters $120M order against former owner of failed Michigan dam

DETROIT (AP) — The former owner of a Michigan dam is on the hook for roughly $120 million sought by the state for environmental damage when the structure failed after days of rain in 2020, a judge said.

But it’s not known how the state will ever collect: Lee Mueller has filed for bankruptcy protection in Nevada.

“I don’t have $120 million,” Mueller told The Associated Press, calling the figure an “absurdity.”

After three days of rain, the Edenville Dam collapsed in May 2020, releasing a torrent that overtopped the downstream Sanford Dam and flooded the city of Midland, located about 128 miles (206 kilometers) northwest of Detroit. Thousands of people were temporarily evacuated and 150 homes were destroyed.

Wixom Lake, a reservoir behind the Edenville Dam, disappeared.

U.S. District Judge Paul Maloney on Monday granted the state’s request for a $120 million judgment against Mueller, who didn’t contest it. The state said much of that amount is related to damage to fisheries and the ecosystem for mussels.

The state insists that the Eden­ville Dam collapsed as a result of poor maintenance and a lack of critical repairs.

“The failures of the Edenville and Sanford dams caused impacts that were devastating but avoidable,” said Phil Roos, director of the state environment agency.

Mueller said he believes the dam failed because of a defect during construction about a century ago.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission asked experts to study what happened at the Edenville and Sanford dams. The 2022 report said failure was “foreseeable and preventable” but could not be “attributed to any one individual, group or organization.”

Separately, the state is facing a flood of litigation from affected property owners. They accuse regulators of making decisions that contributed to the disaster, including setting higher water levels in Wixom Lake.