Want better roads? Make it easier to open gravel mines in Michigan, unions say
- For the fourth consecutive term, lawmakers debate shifting oversight of mine operations to the state
- Proponents say change would take ‘emotion’ out of decision-making process and reduce cost of fixing roads
- Officials worry the reform will lead to pollution and hurt quality of life in towns with gravel pits
LANSING — Legislation that would strip local governments of the authority to regulate gravel mines is moving along in the state House, prompting disagreements with business leaders who say the reform will cut road costs and local leaders who say it will hurt the quality of life.
The bipartisan three-bill package would shift the permitting authority for sand and gravel mines from local governments to the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.
Under the bills, the state would grant permits to mining operations and regulate potential environmental impacts. This is the fourth consecutive term lawmakers have proposed the change.
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Gravel mining is important to road repairs that Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has touted as a centerpiece of her administration. The state last month earned a D grade for road conditions from the American Society of Civil Engineers.
Trade associations representing the gravel industry, business groups and unions support the legislation, arguing it would reduce road construction costs. The price of sand and gravel — raw materials used in concrete and asphalt for road repairs — is spiking, the result of local controversies that have thwarted mine development and increased delivery costs.
Mark Schlegel, owner of Schlegel Sand and Gravels and chair of the Michigan Aggregates Association, said local officials must take the “emotion” out of their decision-making when granting a mining permit.
“These permits need to be looked at with facts, not being looked at as the neighbor … (Local officials) feel that they are letting down or their friend that’s in the room they have a hard time saying no to,” Schlegel said.
Labor unions argue the bills would create jobs for road workers.
“Without expanded aggregate, we risk losing another generation of professional tradespeople because we cannot logistically and financially put them to work,” said Lee Graham, a trustee of Operating Engineers Locals 324. “Given the state of our infrastructure needs, this would be catastrophic to our future.”
The elected executives of Wayne, Macomb and Oakland counties support the reforms.
In a May 8 letter to House lawmakers, Wayne County Executive Warren Evans argued the bills would reduce road construction costs by up to $1 billion while guarding against the environmental impact aggregate mining could bring.
Local governments are under “great political pressure” to deny mining permits and must haul in the materials from elsewhere, which Evans argued drove up the costs.
“This is resulting in endless delays and denials that are pushing aggregate mining farther and farther away from our biggest public construction projects.”
Michigan remains one of the top producers of gravel nationwide, despite local controversies, ranking fourth among states in 2018 and producing more than 43 million metric tons per year.
Environmental advocates and most township leaders oppose the bills, saying the legislation would side-step local control and lead to noise pollution and other woes. The state may also lack the staff to enforce mine regulations, said Laurie Fromhart, supervisor of the Bridgewater Township in Washtenaw County.
“The proposed bills would also place an undue burden on (the state) that does not have adequate resources to effectively monitor and enforce these types of operations,” Fromhart said in an email to the legislators Monday.
In a May 6 email to legislators, Michigan resident David Ellyatt called gravel mines “the epitome of a corporate polluter.”
“They lay waste to the landscape, generate noise and harmful silica dust and leave legacies of destruction for generations,” he said.
During the Tuesday hearing, lawmakers tweaked the bill after state environmental regulators worried the original language would have made it hard to enforce the rules. The department did not support or oppose the bills Tuesday.
The new legislation would require the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy to assess the average noise levels at a mining site over an hour-long span, down from the eight hours in the original bill. Travis Boeskool, deputy director of EGLE, told lawmakers Tuesday that eight hours is “excessively long.”
“We would have to go out there, set up specialized monitoring equipment, have staff sit there for eight hours and measure those to determine that compliance,” he said.
The new version also would prohibit existing mines from applying for a state permit until three years after the bill takes effect. Boeskool said it’s to prevent current mines from circumventing local rules and submitting applications, which could overwhelm department staff.
“Our concern was the potential for currently operating mines who might be unhappy with the arrangements that they have with local units of government saying: ‘Oh, man, that state program looks great.’ And then we get 100 applications, and we have two people to review them,” he said.
The department would initially have four to five people reviewing applications if the bill took effect, Boeskool told Bridge Michigan.
He acknowledged the department may need extra manpower to accommodate the workload under the bill, but said the revenue brought in by additional mining operations could offset that cost.
“That’s more revenue coming in, which is more people hired for the program,” he said.
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