U.S. Rep. Mitchell blasts mining permit bill

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Republican U.S. Rep. Paul Mitchell dove into a heated Michigan mining and environmental debate Wednesday, telling a Senate committee that a proposal before it put "profit" ahead of potential risks.

"I like profit," said Mitchell, a former businessman from Dryden. "Profit is a good thing but not disregarding the risks to our state, to our community and to our environment."

Mitchell made the comments before the Senate Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which is considering a bill that would limit the ability of local governments to block gravel mining operations within their borders.

State Sen. Adam Hollier, D-Detroit, left, talks with U.S. Rep. Paul Mitchell, R-Dryen, after a committee hearing in Lansing on Wednesday,  Jan. 22, 2020. Mitchell spoke in opposition to Hollier's bill that would limit local governments' ability to block mining operations.

Supporters say the bill, sponsored by Sen. Adam Hollier, D-Detroit, is meant to standardize local zoning policies on mining across the state while trying to ensure there's material available to improve the state's roads.

Opponents counter that the bill limits local control to the benefit of companies, hoping to set up operations in places where local residents are in opposition.

Many foes showed up for the committee hearing, where the meeting room was at capacity and an overflow room where the meeting was broadcast on screens was also filled.

Valerie Kusiak came from Harrison in Clare County. Kusiak said she's opposed to taking away local control from townships and counties to allow "big businesses" into small neighborhoods.

Attendees wore buttons that said "keep local control" and many were spurred to come because an ongoing fight over a gravel mining operation in the Lapeer County village of Metamora.

But Hollier argued Wednesday that the state needs one set of zoning rules on the subject instead of differing rules depending where residents live. The senator said his community doesn't have a nonprofit with the ability to bus residents to Lansing to oppose a gravel mine.

"I am saying let’s have one set of rules," Hollier said.

His bill says a local government cannot deny a permit for mining resources if the resources are "valuable" and if "very serious consequences would not result from the extraction" of the resources.

The proposal also stipulates that an application to extract resources through mining is considered approved if the local unit of government doesn't make a final decision regarding the application within 180 days of receiving the application.

Mitchell, who has decided not to seek reelection in 2020, represents Metamora in the U.S. House. He told the committee that a businessman who supports the bill came to his district office and talked about "how much money they contributed to various things, including to me, and they expected my support."

“I was appalled," Mitchell said. "I was offended.”

He added that the committee should not allow “greed and ego” to exploit communities and natural resources so someone "can make a buck.”

After the meeting, Mitchell declined to provide additional details about the businessman who came to his district office.

"Senate Bill 431 simply runs over communities because big business says, 'We want the money,'" Mitchell said. "I am a Republican, but oh my God, let’s be serious here."

Doug Needham, president of the Michigan Aggregates Association, testified in support of the bill. He said the proposal would reduce cost pressures on materials for road projects while limiting the influence of residents arguing "not in my backyard" against projects.

"They are going to say they want local control," Needham said. "We want private property rights. It is our property with the material we would like to mine to provide the citizens of the state."

Needham said higher demand and limited supply are increasing the costs of road projects.

The Senate committee didn't vote on the bill on Wednesday. Chairman Tom Barrett, R-Charlotte, said he plans to hold another hearing on the legislation.

Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, a member of the committee, said he was undecided on the bill, which he called a "difficult issue."

"I have a lot of sympathy and desire to support the community issue that comes along with active aggregate mining," McBroom said. "But I also have a real passion to protect private property rights."