Jun 25, 2023

Sand and gravel industry alleges local governments not qualified to decide whether to approve new mines

A group of Michigan businesses wants to remove local control of permitting for sand and gravel mines. During a hearing yesterday, legislators heard from those for and against giving that authority to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy.

The sand and gravel industry says local governments are holding back progress. With Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s ‘Fix the damn roads’ campaign, more sand, gravel, and other aggregates are needed for road beds and concrete. But industry leaders say local governments are getting in the way.

This is not the first time this proposal has come before lawmakers. It's been backed by unions and big business interests, but it’s failed twice.

Before the House Committee on Regulatory Reform even started hearing testimony on the most recent bills, representatives from several environmental groups were holding an online news conference.

They were not happy the legislation was being considered again.

“This package is so bad that it's been defeated with bipartisan opposition multiple times under previous Republican control,” said Christy McGillivray with the Sierra Club-Michigan Chapter.

The environmentalists are angry that some of them worked to elect Democrats and some Democrats are sponsoring this latest package of bills to take local control from permitting sand and gravel mining away and give it to the state.

"I don’t recall hearing anyone running for office on promises to make it easier to open aggregate mines that threaten our drinking water and the Great Lakes,” said Sean McBrearty with Clean Water Action .

At the hearing, groups representing local governments were more blunt.

“This is the third legislative session that I have been involved speaking on these bills. We are here with a new set of legislators, new year, same crap,” said Jennifer Rigterink, Assistant Director of State and Federal Affairs with the Michigan Municipal League.

The Michigan Aggregates Association was ready with arguments the group has pitched before.

“Michigan's crumbling infrastructure and strong economy is driving up demand for a limited amount of permitted aggregate. The statewide supply shortage is due to local units of governments effectively blocking the opening of new mines,” said Doug Needham, Executive Director of the industry group.

As reported during the last attempt to get the legislation approved, the claims of supply chain problems seem to be based on two reports that were discredited by both the State Transportation Commission auditor and the Michigan Office of the Auditor General. The auditors questioned the veracity of the reports after emails obtained by the Detroit Free Press under the Freedom of Information Act revealed Needham unduly influenced the direction of the studies.

At the hearing, Needham was going through a slideshow and one screen listed townships that indicated they had blocked aggregate mines. But officials from several townships say it’s not accurate.

“There are elected officials in this room today that were shocked to see their township or their local units named on that slide. They don't have a problem. They are working well with the operators in their community,” said Judy Allen with the Michigan Township Association.

One of them was Bob Depalma. He’s been the Supervisor of Groveland Township in Oakland County for 27 years. For 16 years before that he chaired the planning commission. The whole time he said he’s approved mining permits.

“And in my case, when I saw my name on the list of one of the pits that was involved in litigation, it was news to me,” Depalma said.

Needham, with the Aggregates Association, argued that local governments are not qualified to make decisions about whether an aggregate mine should be approved.

“Local officials do not have the insight into the importance of the material to state and federal construction projects. The supply chain is broken. Simple economics state when there’s a high demand for product, it’s in short supply, prices increase,” Needham said.

He said the result is that Michigan is not getting as many miles of road built for its money.

Other industry leaders told lawmakers that local planning commissioners don’t have the experience to make good decisions.

“This is a devastating challenge for an often inexperienced group of volunteers that serve as local planning commissioners. And worse is that many zoning officials are equally as inexperienced since they gained their position by default, after only winning their township supervisor election,” said Kelly Kuiper, Development Director, Great Lakes Excavating Services.

She went on to say applicants cannot get fair and impartial due process at the local government level.

“Because they feel more beholden to calming the angry residents or not upsetting their neighbors or members of their church then they do beholden to the set of land use laws which govern their municipality,” she said.

Applications for gravel pits often do prompt citizens to actively work against the effort. The concerns range from damage to local water supplies, dust that might cause health problems, noise of air blasting and machinery, and a lot of heavy truck traffic with double trailers full of rocks or sand on local roads.

Rigterink, with the Michigan Municipal League, said the issue really comes down an industry lobbying hard to force through legislation while making claims she said don’t hold up under scrutiny.

“What you have in front of you is complete profit over people. And it's putting the industry front and center. Written by the industry for the industry, here for you,” she said.

One of the last to testify was Megan Tinsley with the Michigan Environmental Council. She says aggregate mining is harmful to Michigan’s surface waters and groundwater. Despite the industry’s claims that there’s a shortage of sand and gravel for roads, she says the evidence would indicate otherwise.

“As Michigan is in the top ten producing sand and gravel states in the nation, why are we moving forward with this as if we have no current supply? And as a state plagued by horrific examples of drinking water contamination, why are we not putting in place the best protections that we can?” Tinsley asked.

The Chair of the House Regulatory Reform Committee, Democratic Representative Tyrone Carter, a sponsor of the legislation, did not say when there might be a vote to send it to the full House.

Environmentalists note the sand and gravel industry’s legislation is being considered ahead of any of the Democrats’ higher profile, more environmentally friendly bills.