Traverse City Record-Eagle

Boardman River flood

October 14, 2012

Cause of Brown Bridge flood must be determined

The most important determination those investigating the cause of the Oct. 6 Brown Bridge Pond flood must immediately make is that whatever it takes, however long it takes, they're going to figure out what happened, how and why it happened, and who is accountable.

Anything less is unacceptable.

Just a few days after the flood, a state Department of Environmental Quality official opened the door to allowing the cause of the disaster to be so much water over the dam.

"I don't know if we will ever really know for sure exactly what happened," said Jim Pawloski, a member of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality's Dam Safety Unit.

Unacceptable.

"Often, when we have incidents like this, much of the evidence is washed downstream," he said. Unacceptable.

Local, state and federal officials, the many dozens of professional contractors and engineers, the project directors, the groups that pushed so hard for the dam removal process and the public must draw a line in the mud: We demand to know how this disaster happened, and why.

We must also know, to the best of our knowing, the short- and long-term impact the untold tons of possibly tainted silt and muck that rolled unchecked past the dam will have on the river, the wildlife and the people whose homes are now surrounded by — or stuck in — all that muck and mire.

Is their land contaminated? Is their well water still drinkable? Are there health concerns? Can the grandchildren still come and play?

This is uncharted territory and their needs must met, and soon.

During the months-long debate about removing the dams there was a lot of speculation, but little concrete information, about what might lie behind them.

Mercury, lead and other toxic substances were said to be a good possibility, as well as decades of runoff of all kinds of substances.

There were also worries — never more than conjecture — that the ponds had been dumping grounds for things people wanted to get rid of but for which they didn't want to be responsible.

Hopefully, none of that will prove to be true.

But now, instead of being able to do an orderly drawdown and then assess what was left at the bottom of the pond, officials will have to scour areas downstream and look for what might have spewed in the few hours it took to drain the 20 feet of water in the pond.

That's on top of the analysis of the tons of material that is still behind the dam.

Beyond determining accountability, those running the dam removal process must know precisely what happened in order to ensure that it cannot happen again, no matter what.

Brown Bridge is just the first of three Boardman River dams that are to be removed and the powers that be must determine not only what happened but devise a foolproof way to proceed with demolition of the other dams that will pass public muster.

Given what just happened, that won't be easy.

This was said to be one of the largest dam removal projects in the nation but now it's in question.

We need to know if we need new engineers, new contractors and better oversight.

Grand Traverse County residents have likely already seen parallels between the Brown Bridge pond disaster and the ongoing septage plant saga, where a good idea went bad because of bad data, bad decisions and incompetence.

The first explanation then was that this was just one of those things, there was no one to blame and nothing to see, so must move along, please.

We know how that worked out.

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