Traverse City Record-Eagle

December 14, 2012

Editorial: Answers expected on dam fiasco


---- — When the conversation turns to the Brown Bridge Dam removal project, Grand Traverse-area residents might feel they've been there and done that. The parallels between the collapse of a "dewatering" structure on the Boardman River and the failure of the county's ill-fated septage treatment plant are all too real.

Taxpayers won't tolerate a repeat of the blame game surrounding the failed septage plant to this day.

So recent news that the senior engineer supervising the dam removal project doesn't have a professional engineering license through the state of Michigan probably sent the region's collective blood pressure up a few points.

It turns out that Sandra Sroonian, who is heading up the project for AMEC, has an engineering degree but is not required to hold a professional engineering license. She was not responsible for the engineering design for the removal of Brown Bridge Dam; the dewatering structure was proposed by Molon Excavating, and AMEC accepted it. AMEC has three other licensed professional engineers on the project who handle design and engineering tasks, she said.

That's reassuring; though having a license doesn't mean someone knows how to engineer a project of this size, it's an indication she has proven to the state's satisfaction she knows her business.

Gourdie-Fraser Inc., the engineering firm that designed and then helped build the septage treatment plant, had never done a similar project and, as it turned out, wasn't aware of some construction standards for buildings of that kind.

County residents are likely less concerned about history than they are the immediate future: That the larger Boardman dam removal project will continue (there are two more dams to go after Brown Bridge) with no further disasters; that a clear-cut cause for the failure of the dewatering structure is found and agreed on; that someone other than county taxpayers pays for the damage done when the water pent up behind the dam roared downstream; and that we won't still be arguing about this five years from now.

That's not a lot to ask.

Sandra Sroonian's lack of a license is not the main issue here but it is important. In an undertaking of this size and complexity, details count, as does the public's perception of those in charge and the level of trust taxpayers are expected to extend.

Shortly after all that water gushed down the Boardman, flooding dozens of properties, an official said we "may never know" what happened. That's as unacceptable today as it was then; but more than two months down the road we don't appear to be any closer to an answer.

Residents expect more.