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Fix the damn roads? Michigan must first decide who OKs the darn gravel mines

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Industry officials say unreasonable local opposition is hindering sand and gravel mine development, driving up the cost to build roads. Environmentalists contend the industry is merely seeking to skirt responsibility for noise and pollution. (Bridge file photo)
  • Lawmakers have revived an effort to strip away local control over sand and gravel mine permitting
  • Industry contends local opposition is blocking mine development and driving up costs
  • Environmentalists accuse lawmakers of caving to industry whims

Michigan’s quest to “fix the damn roads” is prompting a fight in Lansing over who gets to decide where the gravel industry can mine for raw materials used in concrete and asphalt.

For the fourth straight legislative term, bipartisan lawmakers are pushing bills that would shift permitting oversight of sand and gravel mines from local communities to the state. 


Proponents of the bills say that would drive down construction costs, which they claim are rising as local opposition stymies development of mines and drives up the cost to haul materials from ever-greater distances. 


But environmentalists and local government advocates say the package would steamroll local communities to maximize profits. 

The latest reform effort is spearheaded by House Appropriations Chairperson Rep. Angela Witwer, D-Delta Township, Rep. Tyrone Carter, D-Detroit and Rep. Pat Outman, R-Six Lakes. 

“Aggregate permitting reform is a huge part of our overall commitment to improving infrastructure,” Carter said Tuesday during a hearing on the bills by the House Regulatory Reform Committee, which he chairs.

Current law allows local governments to consider issues such as road dust and noise pollution when deciding whether to permit a new gravel mine. Locals can also limit activities at approved mines to minimize neighborhood impact.

The bills 4526, 4527 and 4528 would strip local governments of that regulatory power. 

Instead, mining developers would seek a permit from the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, which would include standard statewide limits on noise, siting and other aspects of mining, including cleanup standards for when mines are no longer in use. 

The bills have support from a coalition of business, union and construction groups called Build it Michigan Strong, which includes the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and groups representing the aggregate mining and road-building industries. 

Those groups note that other extractive industries, like oil and gas, are already subject to state-level permitting. 

“We’re not looking to reinvent the wheel,” said Doug Needham, executive director of the Michigan Aggregates Association. “We're just looking to be aligned with many other extractive industries in our state.”

Michigan’s glacier-carved landscape makes it among the nation’s biggest sand and gravel producers. Gravel miners prefer to locate operations close to population centers, where raw material is needed to build and maintain roads and other infrastructure. 

But developers often encounter pushback from locals, who fear lower property values, more noise and dust and environmental destruction caused by mining. 

Needham argued Michigan is wasting millions in added transportation costs to haul sand and gravel from longer distances — though he offered few specifics about how industry arrived at that figure.

Groups representing local governments generally oppose the bills, arguing they fly in the face of Michigan’s longstanding tradition of local control over land use. They raised fears of loud construction noises and hazardous dust near schools and houses.

“New year, same crap,” Jennifer Rigterink, assistant director of state and federal affairs for the Michigan Municipal League, told lawmakers on Tuesday.

It’s an issue that has come up repeatedly in Lansing in recent years, but each effort to reduce local control ultimately died.

With many key players in those past fights out of office, a new crop of lawmakers is getting acquainted with the debate during a time when Michigan is spending heavily on road reconstruction to fix its notorious potholes. A report card released Monday by the American Society of Civil Engineers gave Michigan’s roads a D grade. 

As industry expands to build more roads, some communities have endured decades-long disputes over mining proposals in their backyards. 

In Metamora Township in Lapeer County, residents have fought for years against a mine proposal near a federal Superfund site that has contaminated the groundwater. 

During Tuesday’s hearing in Lansing, township resident Michelle Joliat pushed back against industry claims that mining opponents are all “not in my backyard” activists without valid environmental concerns.

“I can’t drink the water in my house,” Joliet said, and she fears further disruption of aquifers if crews start digging into the soil for gravel. 

The hearing also included testimony from gravel mine developers who said debates over new mine proposals are growing dangerously contentious.

Kelly Kuiper, director of development for Ottawa County-based aggregate mine company Great Lakes Excavating Service, said people have derided and spit on her during local planning commission meetings.

But Kuiper said her frustration lies with planning commissioners, “who are unable to grant me as the applicant fair and impartial due process, because they feel more beholden to calming the angry residents or not upsetting their neighbors or members of their church.”

While lawmakers debated in Lansing, environmentalists staged an online media event criticizing Democratic legislators for winning office on promises to protect the environment, but championing bills that ignore environmentalists’ priorities and cater to industry.

The gravel bills received their first hearing within a week of being introduced, while many bills championed by environmentalists are still awaiting hearings or have yet to be introduced or advanced. Among them are changes to Michigan’s contaminated site cleanup laws and bills to hold electricity providers accountable for power outages. 


“The Dems owe us answers here about who they work for,” said Roshan Krishnan, a policy associate with the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition. “Is it us, or is it corporate interests in Lansing?”

Lansing’s top Democrat, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, has yet to announce a position on the bills. 

But she has made road repairs a central part of her platform, and her spokesperson, Bobby Leddy, said the administration is ”always open to working with anyone to pass laws that will help us make even more progress.”

Carter, chief sponsor of one of the gravel reform bills, said he sees room for compromise and is expecting lengthy negotiations.

“It needs some work,” Carter told Bridge. “There’s some concerns, some legitimate ones, and this is an issue that hasn’t gone away for decades.”

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