Victory for the Pigeon River! Part II
“Paddle the pristine, nature-filled Pigeon River, stretch and rejuvenate your body with yoga, and dine like royalty as the kitchen staff pampers you with wonderful, gourmet vegetarian meals. Sound like a relaxing weekend? You deserve it! Treat yourself to all of the above and try some meditation, bring a good book, or hike the nature trails in your spare time. Led by yoga instructor, outdoor lover, and Song of the Morning staff member (name hidden to protect the guilty).”
Ahhhh, yeah, right. That was taken from the website for Song of the Morning Ranch, the yoga retreat on the banks of the Pigeon River, just outside the Pigeon River Country. That’s their advertising anyway, here’s the reality.
“The dam, owned by the yoga retreat off Sturgeon Valley Road, has been in the spotlight since June 2008 when a release of water and sediment from the impoundment upstream of the dam caused a massive fish kill for miles downstream. After that incident, the DNR and PRCA filed a lawsuit against Golden Lotus, with TU signing on as an intervening plaintiff.”
That’s from a newspaper article online from the Petoskey News, you can read the entire story here.
The massive fish kill in June 2008 was the third such incident involving the old Lansing Club dam. First, a little history.
The Lansing Club was a sportsman club that purchased 800 acres of land just east of Vanderbilt, Michigan, when that happened, I am not exactly sure. The Lansing Club built the dam on the Pigeon River over 100 years ago as a source for electricity back before there were any power lines in the area. Golden Lotus/Song of the Morning continues to use the dam to generate electricity, even though they admit it would be cheaper for them to buy electricity from a utility company. But that wouldn’t let them claim they are “off the grid”.
There was a major Fishkill before Golden Lotus/Song of the Morning purchased the land and the dam, back on May 15, 1957, a 1.09 inch rainfall washed out the dam and produced a 12-foot head of water that roared down the Pigeon River. The earthworks were replaced with concrete and the dam became known as the Song of the Morning Ranch dam after Golden Lotus/Song of the Morning purchased the old Lansing Club.
Since Golden Lotus/Song of the Morning has owned and operated the dam, there have been two major fish kills on the Pigeon River.
On July 3, 1984, the Song of the Morning Ranch dam operators ignored a DNR order to gradually draw down the impoundment to make critical repairs and released large quantities of water and silt from the 65 acre impoundment in their rush to get access to the bottom of the dam’s gates. The result was another silt spill into the Pigeon with the destruction of an estimated 22,000 fish!
The second accident resulted in a four-year long court case that resulted in a Consent Order that required, among other things, “implementing an approved dam safety and management program” by the Song of the Morning Ranch so that there would never be another disaster on the Pigeon.
It was after that incident that a court ordered that if there were another such incident because of the dam in the future, the dam would have to be removed.
In April 2005 the State of Michigan petitioned the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which oversees 99 hydroelectric dams in Michigan, to regulate the dam at Song of the Morning. FERC denied the request, as well as a request for rehearing, saying the dam did not meet the requirements for federal jurisdiction.
The fact that Song of the Morning operates off the grid was a major reason its dam escaped FERC regulation. Bryan Burroughs, executive director of Trout Unlimited in Michigan claimed the retreat, which occasionally drew electricity from the grid but now uses a diesel generator for backup power, “didn’t disconnect until they smelled that people were trying to get FERC to regulate them.”
Indeed, just four months after the state’s initial request to FERC, Golden Lotus wrote the commission, stating its intention to disconnect from the grid. “Everybody we talked to said ‘Don’t be FERC regulated,’ Song of the Morning staff general manager Ian Wylie said. “It’s a nightmare. The cost to do that would be outrageous.”
The June 2008 fish kill was due to operator error, and resulted in thousands of dead trout lining the banks of the Pigeon River for several miles below the dam.
Sometime during the night of June 22 or small hours of June 23, 2008, a mechanical problem caused the dam gates to open completely, or nearly so. Tons of sediment rose from the pond’s bottom, churned in the sudden torrent, and rushed through the gates into the river.
An alarm sounded, indicating a low water level in the pond, but was ignored by Song of the Morning staff, said general manager Ian Wylie. In weeks prior, the dam’s monitoring system had fallen out of calibration, causing repeated false alarms and leading the staff to switch to a backup system. When the alarm sounded in earnest, Wylie said, it got the boy- who-cried-wolf treatment.
By morning, few fish survived immediately downstream. The rush of warm pond water and organic sediment lowered the river’s oxygen levels until trout, suckers and other species suffocated, said Dave Borgeson, a fisheries biologist with the Department of Natural Resources who investigated the fish kill.
After they were smothered in a warm slurry of muck, things got even worse for the fish. When Song of the Morning staff realized the pond’s level had dropped significantly, Wylie said, “a decision had to be made.” They opted to shut the dam gates completely to stop the sediment flow, and to refill the pond. For a time, the river downstream all but disappeared.
Normal flow of the Pigeon River is 60 cfs. The operators of the dam released 185 cfs (more than three times its normal flow) on June 22. Then, on the morning of June 23, they essentially shut the flow off to a water flow of 6 cfs. Even without the release of sediment, just the fluctuation in flow alone would have had a devastating effect on aquatic life. The dissolved oxygen (DO) levels were at or close to zero. This has a fatal outcome for fish. At DO levels of 5, stress on fish is greatly heightened; and at DO level of 6 or greater fish actively thrive.
Dave Borgeson, a fisheries biologist with the Department of Natural Resources and others conducted a survey of the affected stretch of river using a mild electric shock to stun fish so they could be counted. For two miles downstream from the dam they saw a grim parade of belly up trout, but couldn’t find enough live fish to estimate the population.
“It will be five to 10 years before the river comes back to the condition it was in the week before this happened,” said John Walters, president of the Headwaters Chapter of Trout Unlimited. Aside from the fish kill, organisms that serve as food were also killed by the sediments. Following the 1984 incident, fish were planted in the now depleted section of the river below the dam.
“They all died,” Walters said. “There is no food. They starved. We prefer to see the river make a natural recovery.”
The same scenario has played out after both of the fish kills they have been responsible for. Golden Lotus/Song of the Morning has been sued in court, fined by the Michigan DNR, and the resulting negative publicity has hurt the bottom line of Golden Lotus, which claims to be a non-profit entity. Golden Lotus/Song of the Morning quickly signs off on a deal with the state and other litigants to get the story out of the news, and as soon as that happens, Golden Lotus/Song of the Morning just as quickly tries to go back on the deals they have signed off on, claiming that they can’t afford to live up to the terms of the agreements they have signed.
After the last fish kill in June 2008, the DNR fined Golden Lotus/Song of the Morning $1.3 million for the environmental disaster they caused. In addition, the State of Michigan and the public entity that oversees the Pigeon River Country, the Pigeon River Country Association, sued Golden Lotus/Song of the Morning for full removal of the dam under the terms of the court order from 1984. Trout Unlimited was allowed to join the suit as an interested party.
The parties involved negotiated a settlement that reduced the fine from the original $1.5 million to $150,000 to be paid in annual payments of $15,000 per year for ten years, with the understanding that Golden Lotus/Song of the Morning would use the money they no longer had to pay in fines to remove the dam once and for all. The PRCA and TU agreed to assist Golden Lotus/Song of the Morning in developing a plan to remove the dam. The judge assigned to the case and all interested parties, including Golden Lotus/Song of the Morning signed off on the negotiated settlement. That got the story out of the press, and ended the bad publicity for Golden Lotus/Song of the Morning at least at the time.
Before the ink was barely dry on the settlement they signed, Golden Lotus/Song of the Morning was back trying to renegotiate the terms of the settlement, asking the state to allow them to only remove the mechanical parts of the dam that have been the cause of the fish kills, but allowing Golden Lotus/Song of the Morning to leave the impoundment itself in place.
What Golden Lotus/Song of the Morning is trying to do is escape their legal responsibilities as far as the dam is concerned. They hope that in removing the floodgates and power generating equipment that they will no longer be legally responsible for any future environmental damage that the remaining part of the impoundment may cause. I think they are acting on poor legal advice and are only concerned with their bottom line. As it is right now, they are legally responsible for any environmental damage the dam causes, even if that environmental damage was triggered by an act of nature, such as a heavy rainfall that would wash silt downstream.
Whatever their motivation is, Golden Lotus/Song of the Morning is once again trying to weasel out of a deal they signed off on. That led the PRCA and TU to file suit again to force Golden Lotus/Song of the Morning to live up to the agreement that had been worked out before. Just this week, 46th Circuit Court Judge Dennis Murphy ruled that removal really does mean removal, and that Golden Lotus/Song of the Morning must remove the entire dam, not just the mechanical portions of it.
For the Golden Lotus/Song of the Morning side of the story, here’s a link to a document they have posted on the web.
William Schlecte, attorney for Golden Lotus, said he will “vigorously appeal” Judge Murphy’s decision and continue to support the ranch’s two-phase approach.
Schlecte said the appeal could first go back to Judge Murphy, then eventually the Michigan Supreme Court, potentially taking years to resolve. He also said Golden Lotus is a nonprofit organization that does not have enough money to do an all-out removal right away. He characterized his client as being devoted to a lifestyle that is harmonious with nature.
Harmonious with nature? That may be how Golden Lotus/Song of the Morning promotes itself to the well-heeled clientelle they hope to attract to their retreat, but their actions tell a different story. Paddle the pristine, nature-filled Pigeon River? Not after your client gets finished with it Mr. Schlecte, while most of the emphasis has been on the trout and other fish killed by your client, the truth is almost the entire aquatic ecosystem was wiped out for miles downstream of the dam your client controls. Not only were the fish killed, but also the insects, amphibians, and other lifeforms the fish eat, right down to the plankton that supports the entire ecosystem. Instead of the clear cool water that used to be the Pigeon, there is now the remnants of the silt lining the river bottom making it almost unrecognizable.
So your client is threatening to drag this out for years? Is that to give them more time to finish off the destruction they seem bent on inflicting on the river, Mr. Schlecte? Your client’s own document paints the dam and the associated pond as an ecological time bomb just waiting to explode for a fourth time.
Golden Lotus/Song of the Morning have proven they have no respect for the river or the environment. They have ignored DNR recommendations and orders in the past. They have ignored the warning systems they were ordered to install to prevent these events from happening. They have proven that they are incapable of operating the dam in a safe manner. They have compounded their mistakes in pathetic attempts to cover their tracks by closing the floodgates completely, hoping that they can refill the pond before any one notices the destruction they have wrought. It is time for the dam to go, NOW!
Court orders are all well and good, but we really can’t declare a victory for the Pigeon River until the dam is gone once and for all!