Every once in a while we have large, painful failures that are visible to lots of people.

The Edenville Dam in Michigan was recently breached, and massive amounts of water were released into the city of Midland, which is home to Dow Chemical and about 40,000 people. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic-associated economic disaster, my small business, like many others, is very slow. This leaves me time to speculate on noncommercial projects – time to cultivate my curiosity!

I heard the emergency alerts for the impending dam failure on the radio on my way home the night of Tuesday, May 19. But when I got home and looked up the Edenville Dam, I found that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) had revoked the hydroelectricity-generation license of the private company that owned the dam due to structural concerns. They had drained the artificial lake to perform an inspection, and after more than a decade of safety violations, the power generation was shut down because no repairs had been made. Next, I found some articles documenting the arrangements that had been made to provide funding for repairs. The repairs were to be completed within a few years of the April 2019 agreement.

I was really baffled. It seemed to be a short time from April 2019 to May 2020 if they were anticipating a multi-year repair effort. I also could not understand why people had been told to evacuate Monday night then sent home Tuesday morning after “authorities” said the dams were sound. Huh? So I figured they must have been repaired. But by Tuesday night, they were being told to evacuate NOW. Failure was imminent.

And failure happened; not only of the Edenville Dam but another dam downstream. I still figured that the Edenville Dam must have been repaired, or they wouldn’t have been allowed to refill the lake.

The dam failure is a problem. Not only for those evacuated, but for the environment. Dow Chemical had open chemical storage ponds that have now mixed with the flood waters. Cost to the environment and animal and plant life TBD. Parts of the city of Midland were expected to be under 9 feet of water.

It was only Thursday morning that the Detroit News had an article explaining what happened. After the FERC ordered the operator to stop making electricity, regulatory authority passed to the state of Michigan. Regulatory authority for the state of Michigan was given to the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

As far as I can ascertain – going against the advice that I always give when teaching failure analysis, which is not to jump to conclusions – there was nobody associated with the project at the DEQ who understood the concept of structural integrity. Apparently, the DEQ acted to PREVENT the operator from lowering the water level in this artificial lake – less than 100 years old – to protect some mussels. Isn’t that the DEQ’s job? To protect Mother Nature? How many animals, plants and people will have negative health outcomes as a result of the chemical releases into the environment? Ah, the law of unintended consequences.

Systems Thinking, a technique of analyzing complex systems, was developed by Donella Meadows. In my opinion, the Edenville Dam failure followed a classic systems-thinking error. Someone at the DEQ must have background and experience in evaluating the potential effects of structural failures on the environmental quality. Why were they not involved? Or will we be hearing from another whistleblower sometime soon?

For now, I see this disaster of flood plus environmental damage on top of the current COVID-19 pandemic plus economic disaster at least partly being a failure of our choice of science education methodology in the U.S. The majority of American citizens are disinterested in, and a sizable minority are actively hostile toward, science. This has consequences.

The modern world is complex. We need to educate ourselves. Lifelong learning about the natural and human world around us is the best antidote to the failures that inevitably result from ignorance. I will try to do my part with a commitment to cultivating my curiosity. How about you?