LaBarge Dam concerns remain after threat of failure in 2018

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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Federal documents show a Kent County dam that officials warned could fail in 2018 has yet to receive significant upgrades. 

In February 2018, residents along the Thornapple River were warned of concerns about the LaBarge Dam at 84th Street in Caledonia Township. At the time, county officials dumped sand to help stabilize the berm and a failure was avoided.

But documents filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which oversees the dam and its owner Commonwealth Power Company, show the previous manager did little to mitigate the potential for future problems. 

County officials say daily monitoring is happening now in response to high water levels and there’s no immediate risk of failure. 

Questions surrounding dams and their regulation have received national attention after catastrophic flooding in mid-Michigan this week when the Edenville Dam breached and another was overtopped. Documents related to that infrastructure show FERC revoked the license assigned to the Edenville Dam in 2018. 

In important context and contrast, a FERC inspection declared the LaBarge Dam safe after the 2018 incident. The owner, CPC, has always maintained its license, though new management took over in January. 

According to FERC filings, the agency recommended CPC hire a professional engineer to do additional evaluation after inspecting the dam in February 2018. As recently as November 2019, FERC notified the company that it had yet to fulfill that recommendation. 

Documents also show CPC, under its previous owners, attempted to use an evaluation conducted by a Kent County employee in the weeks following the 2018 incident in a report to FERC about continued monitoring. 

In April 2019, corporate counsel for Kent County sent FERC a letter stating CPC “erroneously and factiously” reported the employee conducted a study on behalf of the company. 

The letter also stated the employee “never stated verbally or in writing that the stability of the LaBarge Dam was adequate. To our knowledge, no official engineering study of the dam’s condition was completed nor is there a plan in place conduct a study.”

Fast forward to December 2019, when Kent County Emergency Manager Lt. Lou Hunt wrote a letter to FERC after a safety drill that reiterated a lack of urgency or action by CPC to improve conditions at the dam. 

“It would not appear that any improvements (other than the sand dumped by Kent County during the 2018 event) have been implemented,” the letter (PDF) read in part. 

Hunt also pointed to deteriorating conditions on a structure that was built more than a century ago. 

“The spillway of the dam has many apparent cracks in it,” he observed. 

‘WE’VE BEEN WORKING WITH THEM REGULARLY’

Hunt told News 8 Thursday that the county has seen a positive change since new owners took over CPC at the beginning of the year. 

“I think what you can glean from that is we’ve been working with them regularly. There’s more work to be done, but we have been working with them regularly and we’ve been out there looking at their dam this entire week,” the emergency manager said.

A representative for the company said in an email Thursday, “Our goal is simple. We want to fully comply with federal and state requirements while generating renewable energy.”

The response did not acknowledge any specific infrastructure changes made since taking over ownership. 

Hunt said new safety measures are in place that will improve any potential response, should it be needed in the future. 

FERC filings show the new owners filed a new emergency plan in March for the LaBarge Dam, but it’s not accessible online because it qualifies as “critical energy infrastructure information.”

Nonetheless, Hunt said the changes are moving in the right direction. 

The county has worked with the new owners from a public safety perspective, but does not have any jurisdiction over the dam because it is federally regulated. 

There is a follow-up meeting related to monitoring and safety scheduled for September. 

As for the possibility the dam could fail, while Hunt said there’s no immediate concern, he noted he doesn’t have a crystal ball.

“I cannot tell you there’s no potential there,” he said. “Anytime we’re holding back a significant amount of water, there’s clearly some degree of potential that we’re trying to minimize.”

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