Michigan Senate OKs bill to shift gravel mining approval from locals to state
Lansing — The Michigan Senate narrowly approved a bill Wednesday that would shift permitting of gravel mining projects to the state environmental department, limiting the ability of local governments to block the operations.
The debate, which has frequently focused on the availability of material for road construction projects, has waged in Lansing for years with one side pushing for local control and another arguing for private property rights. A gravel mine just outside of Metro Detroit in Lapeer County has become a flash point in the controversy.
Under the new legislation, sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy would have the ability to issue permits for sand and gravel mining, preempting local agencies' regulations. The main bill in the package passed in a 19-17 vote.
Ananich said the state needs to find a balance between protecting the environment and ensuring there's enough material for road projects. There are certain subjects, including workers' rights, civil rights and environmental standards, that should be addressed by statewide decisions, he added.
"If we want to see roads get fixed, the aggregates … have to be affordable," Ananich said. "They have to be close enough to where the project is being done."
But a coalition of local government groups and environmental organizations, including the Michigan Townships Association and the Michigan Environmental Council, are opposing the bills. In a statement, the coalition said the legislation eliminates "all local authority" and creates "an ineffective state-level oversight program."
"These gravel mining bills are yet another assault on local control," said Jennifer Rigterink, legislative associate for the Michigan Municipal League. "We’re continuing to see big government go on the side of corporations over people.
"This proposed legislation is all about profit for the industry and has no regard for people, communities or local zoning decisions that provide the delicate balance of industry and protecting the health, safety and welfare of all.”
Last session, a proposal that sought to standardize the permitting process at the local level stalled in the Legislature. That bill would have stipulated that a local government couldn't deny a permit for mining resources if the resources were "valuable" and if "very serious consequences would not result from the extraction" of the resources.
Much of the debate in Lansing has centered on a years-long fight in Lapeer County's Metamora Township over the use of a property for a gravel mine that aimed to extract 30 million tons of sand and gravel over 30 years to be used for home and road construction.
"There is no need and no justification for ending local input into gravel mining decisions," said Mark Frank, a resident of Metamora Township and a member of Metamora Land Preservation Alliance. "It’s a dangerous plan and a giveaway to the gravel industry."
Sen. Kevin Daley, R-Lum, who represents Metamora Township, spoke against the legislation on the Senate floor. People in his community should have a say what goes in their backyards, he contended.
Seven Republicans, including some of the chamber's most conservative members, joined 10 Democrats to oppose the bill: Daley; Sens. Jon Bumstead, R-Newaygo; Ruth Johnson, R-Holly; Michael MacDonald, R-Macomb Township; Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan; Jim Runestad, R-White Lake; and Lana Theis, R-Brighton.
Six Democrats voted with 12 Republicans in support: Ananich; Sens. Marshall Bullock, D-Detroit; Curtis Hertel, D-East Lansing; Adam Hollier, D-Detroit; Sylvia Santana, D-Detroit; and Paul Wojno, D-Warren.
The bills are a rare example of GOP lawmakers, who are often critical of EGLE, voting to give the department more power.
A coalition of union and business groups, including the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and the Operating Engineers 324, is supporting the new legislation.
"We are very encouraged to see Gov. Whitmer and the Legislature working toward a solution that ensures we have the aggregate materials necessary to fix our roads, while stopping government waste, protecting the environment and ensuring public input,” said coalition member James Holcomb, senior executive vice president at the Michigan Chamber.
The legislation requires EGLE to assess a fee on sand and gravel products for "purposes of surveillance, monitoring, administration and enforcement." The department can also take action if a mining permit results in an "imminent and substantial endangerment to the public health or safety, environment or natural resources."
The proposal still has to go through the Michigan House and gain Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's signature.
Ananich said he's willing to make changes to the bills to gain additional support. He described the road ahead as "long," but the Senate's approval gives the effort moment, he said.
Staff Writer Beth LeBlanc contributed.