Michigan sues village that tried to rebuild dam without permit
BREEDSVILLE, MI – The State of Michigan has filed a lawsuit against a rural village where elected leaders diverted an arm of the river to rebuild a dam without obtaining a permit.
On February 4, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) sued the village of Breedsville, a small crossroads in Van Buren County where a 171-year-old dam on the south branch of the Black River burst in 2008. .
Regulators say local officials engineered a solution without obtaining a permit, which state law requires for any dam repair or construction work that takes place in a river or wetlands near or connected to it. an interior body of water.
The agency wants an Ingham County judge to compel the village to remove armor stone and fill in land from a side channel next to its park, restore wetlands that existed before the work of landscaping and potentially pay fines of up to $60,000 per day.
“The Village of Breedsville has had years to properly address the environmental concerns created by this inappropriate response to the dam breach,” State Attorney General Dana Nessel said in a statement. “We will continue to work with our client agency to ensure appropriate steps are taken to protect this area – and the community – from further harm.”
Nessel’s office announced the filing on Tuesday, February 15.
Village officials declined to comment when reached by phone. Village Clerk Linda Norton referred calls from Village Chairman Steven Rogusta to a Portage lawyer who did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
According to Nessel’s office, EGLE (then called DEQ) told village chiefs in 2008 that rebuilding the failed dam would require a state permit.
The breach occurred during a rainy fall that caused many rivers in southern Michigan to rise. The floodwaters did not threaten the village homes of around 240 people.
The dam was built in 1837 and formed an 8-acre pond.
“We don’t know what damage will be done to the mill pond, but we’re hoping to get it back to normal,” village chairman Wayne Hammond told the Kalamazoo Gazette at the time. “Hundreds of geese and other wildlife stop here every year and it’s a real tourist attraction.”
According to state documents housed in the online database MiWaters, EGLE inspectors began stepping up the examination in Breedsville two years ago following a complaint.
On July 29, 2020, inspectors found dump trucks and bulldozers dumping large amounts of soil into a side channel with the apparent aim of redirecting river flow to the deteriorating spillway structure and away from the natural channel. which developed after the failure of 2008.
A week later, EGLE ordered the dirt removed, saying the unauthorized work violated several sections of the state’s Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act (NREPA).
Randy Counterman, Deputy Chief Commissioner of Drains for Van Buren County, verified that excavation work was in progress at the request of EGLE on the morning of the complaint.
“There was absolutely no engineering involved,” Counterman said. “They needed a soil erosion permit. If they had applied for this, I could have pointed them in the right direction.
The reason such excavation work requires a permit is, among other things, to protect fish habitat in the river. “Fish like rock-bottomed rivers for nesting,” Counterman said. “Dumping a sand truck can really ruin the fish.”
Counterman said the village lost a body of water and likely economic benefits once the pond emptied after the dam broke, but the sewer commissioner’s office had heard anecdotally that fishing had improved. in the area once the river upstream had been reopened for spawning.
He doesn’t know why local leaders thought diverting the river through a deteriorating weir was a good idea.
“Any contact I tried to make with them, including stapling a notice to the front door of their office – they never responded to anything I sent them,” Counterman said.
State inspectors visited the site again on August 21. They found a mound of aggregate armor stones placed adjacent to the backfill area and observed that “soils had entered the water as evidenced by plumes on both sides of the backfill”.
In a February 2021 follow-up letter, EGLE told the village that while a reconstruction permit had been applied for, any reconstruction would have to meet modern dam safety standards. EGLE proposed that the village agree to resolve the issue with an administrative order that would reimburse the state’s legal costs and include a civil penalty.
Last July, EGLE visited the site again and found a significant amount of woody debris accumulating behind the concrete spillway bays, which it attributed to “the increased volume and speed of flow through the dam” due to unauthorized backfilling in the side channel.
In September, another inspection by EGLE revealed that an additional 180 feet of armor stone had been placed along the park’s shoreline, in the river itself and in nearby wetlands.
In an October 18 follow-up letter, EGLE noted that the village had violated five different sections of the NREPA law and threatened to pursue enforcement options.
The case was assigned to Judge Wanda Stokes of Ingham County Circuit Court.
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