United States Sen. Markwayne Mullin wants to make the federal government pay to buy flooded Oklahoma lands along the main tributaries of Grand Lake and also wants to scrap a plan to study whether toxic sediment is building up.

Mullin’s May 7 letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission accuses the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission of reinterpreting “language from over 85 years of precedent and multiple Acts of Congress.” The Commission ruled in January that the Grand River Dam Authority, a non-appropriated state agency that oversees Grand Lake and Pensacola Dam, is responsible for buying out landowners near Miami, Okla., where it frequently floods. The Grand River Dam Authority has appealed the ruling.

Mullin argued the cost could be passed on to many Native American, rural and poor Grand River Dam Authority ratepayers and that the federal government should pay instead.

The cost “must be borne by the public as a whole,” Mullin wrote. 

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The Senator is asking the federal regulator to overturn its previous ruling.

Miami, a town of about 13,000 people just north of where the Neosho, Spring and Elk rivers converge to form Grand Lake, has experienced flooding for years. City officials say much of the flooding has been caused by a backwater effect from Pensacola Dam during heavy rain storms.

Construction of the Pensacola Dam in Langley finished in 1940, impounding what is today known as Grand Lake. Since then, the dam has gone through several relicensures. The Grand River Dam Authority began the current license renewal process with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 2017. Officials hope to have a new license issued by May 2025.

The January Federal Energy Regulatory Commission decision came after the city of Miami successfully appealed a previous ruling stating that the Grand River Dam Authority was not responsible for flooding. 

The city, some of the local American Indian tribes, environmental groups and residents, have also asked the Grand River Dam Authority to perform a toxic sediment study as part of the relicensing process. 

Tar Creek is a stream highly contaminated with heavy metals that flows from the old Tri-State Mining District into the Neosho River. Residents and city officials are worried that toxic sediment from Tar Creek is building up in the upper reaches of the lake as sediment is deposited. Grand River Dam officials contest this.

Mullin has asked the federal regulator to not require the Grand River Dam Authority to study whether sediment from Tar Creek is contaminating nearby waterways. 

The Grand River Dam Authority has been pushing back against performing the toxic sediment study, saying the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency should be responsible for the work.

Mullin wrote in his letter that the Grand River Dam Authority could be on the hook for paying “expensive and burdensome remedial measures” depending on what the study finds, and that state-run utility should not be held responsible for cleanup from old mining operations. 

Dan Sullivan, CEO of the Grand River Dam Authority, said he agreed with Mullin’s letter. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers oversees water releases once the lake gets to flood stage and Congress has asked it in the past to  study whether or not additional lands are necessary for flood control purposes.

“The question that you have to ask at that point is, why would Congress ask the Corps of Engineers to study flood control if it wasn’t the Corps of Engineers responsibility to provide that,” Sullivan said. 

Sullivan estimates it would cost about $150 million to buy lands from affected property owners, which would increase utility rates. The Grand River Dam Authority provides electric power to the city of Miami, meaning that Miami residents would also be impacted with higher rates, he said.

“There wouldn’t be anyone else that we could turn to other than our ratepayers, which includes the citizens of Miami,” Sullivan said. “So the citizens of Miami are footing the bill now for legal fees through their utility, and I think that’s something that I don’t know that many people understand how that suit is being financed. But not only would they pay to prosecute a case, then they’d have to pay their portion of the damages.”

Melinda Stotts, spokeswoman for the City of Miami, said the city and its tribal partners hope to find solutions to the flooding for the community and are actively participating in the relicensing of the Pensacola Dam. 

“In light of the recent tragic weather events that have deeply affected our city and state, our commitment to finding real solutions has only strengthened,” Stotts said. “As we work to rebuild and strengthen our city in the aftermath of these events, we will continue to advocate for our community’s interests in all our endeavors.  This includes addressing the interplay between the Pensacola Project and the contamination from the Tar Creek Superfund site.”

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