Michigan Senate panel advances controversial gravel mining bills

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

A Senate panel on Tuesday approved legislation that would limit communities from blocking gravel mining if a company met benchmarks, such as proof of the resource’s value and providing certain pollution protections if the mining projects are located near a pollution site.

The legislation has been the subject of heated debate. Lawmakers are wrestling with the prospect of overstepping local control in an attempt to create uniform rules for local zoning that observe private property rights and the need for affordable materials to repave Michigan roads. 

Operating Engineers union members gathered outside the Capitol ahead of the vote, encouraging support so the gravel would be available for paving or road projects. Inside the committee chambers, Metamora Township residents gathered to continue their opposition to the legislation, despite changes made to the language at the behest of a legislative work group. 

Victor Dzenowagis, co-owner of the White Horse Inn in Metamora, said revised Michigan Senate legislation on regulating gravel mining operations is "breathtaking" in the authority it takes away from local communities.

"In all candor, as a lifelong Republican, I wonder who in government is looking out for me," said Jocelyn Scofield, a member of the Metamora Township Association. "This is a biased and unfair bill, and it is not the answer to fixing Michigan roads."

Opponents have argued the bills would cede local control to gravel mining companies, but the bills' sponsor, Sen. Adam Hollier, D-Detroit, said the legislation would standardize zoning policies on mining so all communities are on equal footing. Hollier has argued Detroit area communities don't have the same organizing power that Metamora does to oppose the placement of a gravel mine in the neighborhood.

"Let's establish one set of statewide rules," Hollier said, arguing that zoning policies "good enough in Detroit" should be just as good in places like "Metamora or Grayling or Grand Rapids.

"Right now it is an arbitrary decision dependent on whether one community says yes or no," he said.

The Senate Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved the two bills in 6-1 and 7-1 votes. Moving the legislation to the Senate floor occurred after six to eight hours of committee hearings, said Sen. Tom Barrett, the Charlotte Republican who chairs the committee.

"It takes into account a lot of the concerns that were raised," Barrett said. "We as a state and as taxpayers have a obligation to make sure that the money we're spending in our state for transportation is used to the greatest efficiency possible. If we cannot extract aggregate materials that go into building our roads and infrastructure in a reasonable way, then it's just going to make the whole thing more expensive."

The Build It Strong Coalition, a group of union, chamber and aggregate groups, applauded the passage of the bills.

The legislation "is an infrastructure bill that will help reduce construction costs, getting more roads, bridges and sewers fixed and putting people to work at a time when our economy needs a boost due to COVID-19," group spokesman John Sellek said. 

The first bill would prevent communities from blocking a gravel mining operation on private property if the company shows the resources were valuable and unless "serious consequences" could result if the operation went forward. The company would prove that value through a plan submitted to local government. 

The second bill would require a company planning to withdraw water as part of its mining operation to obtain a withdrawal permit and require the company to abide by Michigan pollution laws during the operation and eventual reclamation of the mine.

The legislation would increase setbacks from roads and residential areas from 300 to 400 feet, limit stockpiles to no higher than 35 feet, allow local governments to require berms or trees where practical, limit trucking hours and increase financial assurance requirements regarding reclamation or restoration of the property after mining is complete, Barrett said during Tuesday's hearing. 

The legislation stems from a years-long fight in Lapeer County's Metamora Township over the use of a square mile of property for a gravel mine that would extract 30 million tons of sand and gravel over 30 years to be used for home and road construction. 

Victor Dzenowagis, co-owner of the White Horse Inn in Metamora, said the legislation was "breathtaking" in the authority it takes away from local communities. 

"If someone has gravel on their property, they have a legitimate right to mine that gravel, I get that," Dzenowagis said. "But there can be competing other land uses that have a legitimate equally competing right. So how does that conflict get resolved?

"This bill doesn't provide resolution for that," he said. "It just says gravel gets to do what they want."

Environmental groups also opposed the legislation, arguing that mining operations disturb natural resources and that the protections related to water withdrawal stop short of testing water for pollution in the water.