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  • Writer's pictureBuild It Michigan Strong

Fight over approval of gravel mines set to resume at state Capitol

LANSING — A long-running battle between the gravel industry and local residents over the siting of mining operations is expected to reignite Thursday with the introduction of a new set of bills designed to move decision-making to Lansing.

Local officials say they should decide whether to allow operations that can generate significant noise, dust, and truck traffic and raise concerns about potential contamination of groundwater and nearby wells.

The sand and gravel industry, represented by the Michigan Aggregates Association, says the state should handle the permitting, just as it does for the mining of certain other minerals. The state needs access to gravel close to where roads are being built and repaired, but NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) attitudes are delaying or blocking needed approvals and driving up costs, they say.

"These permitted supplies are limited due to activists who intimidate local elected officials into delaying and denying the opening of new mines," Michigan Aggregates Association Executive Director Doug Needham said at a Wednesday news conference.

"We currently have a cottage industry of traveling so-called experts who are making their way around the state to break the aggregate supply chain."

But in Washtenaw County's Sharon Township, where local officials are considering an application for a 400-acre sand and gravel operation, Supervisor Peter Psarouthakis said he's seen no evidence of that. Instead, well over 90% of township residents appear to be opposed to the proposal as presented, he said.

"They feel this is unsafe for our community and a danger to the health and welfare of the township," Psarouthakis said.

He rejected the suggestion that NIMBY is at work. "We're not anti-mining by any means," and the township has long hosted two 40-acre gravel mines on M-52 that eventually became one 80-acre mine, he said. This is different because it is smack in the center of the township, surrounded by homes and businesses, and it is on a scale the municipality has never dealt with before, he said.

Sharon Township is one of several places around the state where the interests of the gravel industry have clashed with those of local residents. One of the most protracted and publicized fights involves a 500-acre gravel mining proposal in Metamora Township, in the lower Thumb area, that is opposed by local officials.

Similar bills to weaken local control have been introduced going back to the administration of former Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, but none has become law since Public Act 113 of 2011, which says locals must approve gravel mines when the owner shows a need unless "very serious consequences" would result, though they may impose reasonable regulations related to hours of operation, blasting hours, noise levels, dust control measures, and traffic.

Needham said the bills provide for defined hours of operation, soil conservation plans and time frames for public hearings to seek local input. "There has been considerable tweaking and movement on these bills," he said.

But Mark Frank, a board member of the Metamora Land Preservation Alliance, said allowing local input but moving decision-making to Lansing is almost like having no local input at all. "It's more appropriate at the local level, because it is all about zoning," he said.

House Bills 4526, 4527, and 4528 were presented to the House clerk Wednesday and are expected to be formally introduced Thursday, said John Sellek, a spokesman for Build it Michigan Strong.

The coalition of industry and labor groups supports uniform permitting through the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy. Members of the coalition supporting the bills include the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, the Michigan Infrastructure & Transportation Association, and unions representing Teamsters, Laborers, and Operating Engineers.

Opponents include the Michigan Municipal League, the Michigan Environmental Council, the League of Women Voters, and the Michigan Township Association.

Bobby Leddy, a Whitmer spokesman, said the governor is committed to fixing the roads. "We are always open to working with anyone to pass laws that will help us make even more progress, and will be reviewing these bills as they make their way through the Legislature," Leddy said.

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