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The Great Lakes region is blessed with an abundance of water. But water quality, affordability, and aging water infrastructure are vulnerabilities that have been ignored for far too long. In this series, members of the Great Lakes News Collaborative, Michigan Radio, Bridge Michigan, Great Lakes Now, and Circle of Blue, explore what it might take to preserve and protect this precious resource.

State lawmakers consider taking away local authority to issue gravel mining permits

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Lester Graham
/
Michigan Radio
A Michigan aggregate mining operation which obtained its permit from a township.

The Michigan House of Representatives is considering legislation that would take local government control away when it comes to rock, sand, and gravel mine permits. Supporters of the change say too many townships are denying permits.

The people who build roads are pushing the package of bills. This is not the first time this legislation has been introduced. But now, Michigan is in the middle of Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s efforts to, as she puts it, “fix the damn roads.” Aggregate — the gravel, sand, and crushed stone that’s needed — is in greater demand.

Michigan unions, the Michigan Aggregates Association, and the Michigan Chamber of Commerce are among those lobbying the legislature to take aggregate mine permitting away from local government. They want to give that authority to the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy.

Aggregate-03.jpg
Lester Graham
/
Michigan Radio
An aggregate mine in Michigan. Gravel, sand, and rock are retrieved to be used in various construction projects, including roads.

“Over the last couple of decades, the aggregate industry has been faced with unprecedented challenges in getting permit approval for new operations throughout the state,” said Mike Alaimo, director of environmental and energy affairs for the chamber.

In an interview with Pit & Quarry magazine, Michigan Aggregates Association President Douglas Needham said, “As a country, we have now seen how supply chain issues cause shortages and price increases. As a state, anti-gravel activists are generating our own supply chain problems."

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 internal external 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.

The groups have launched a media campaign called “Build It Michigan Strong.”

A video from the campaign depicts workers in hard hats and safety vests at work sites. They talk about aggregate costs and possible shortages.

"That is why we encouraging the legislature to allow more access to sand and gravel to lower the cost," said one unidentified woman.

"More mining will save us money and allow us to fix more roads," said an unidentified man.

A spokesperson for the Michigan Aggregates Association said the people in the video are workers in the aggregates industry.

In the video, the Build It Michigan Strong plan is listed as:

  • Lower costs
  • Fix more roads
  • Without new taxes

There's been no recent talk of new taxes to fund road construction — Governor Whitmer decided to fund her road plan through bonds.
The Senate has already passed the bipartisan legislation that the unions and business interests want.

Democratic Representative Donna Lasinski, the House minority leader, said there’s no doubt that there’s greater demand now for rock, sand, and gravel.

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Lester Graham
/
Michigan Radio
Huge amounts of aggregate material are used for road beds, in concrete, and in asphalt.

“With the acceleration of our road repairs. They're expecting that supply now to only last about five years.”

But she said completely taking away local government control is not the answer to access to aggregate.

Recently she was on a panel discussion organized by the Sharon Preservation Society. An aggregates mining company intends to submit an application for mining in Sharon Township in western Washtenaw County.

Peter Psarouthakis, the Sharon Township supervisor, was also on the panel. He said he doesn’t think giving EGLE the permitting authority would be good.

“I think it's a pipe dream to think that they have the ability to regulate on a day-to-day basis like your local government does,” he told a crowd of about 200.

He said with the township issuing a permit, if something pops up later, the aggregate mining operation would have reason to work with the local government to fix the problem.

Mike Wilczynski,s a certified professional geologist with more than 40 years of experience, was on the panel too. He told the crowd he thinks local control is important. But, in his opinion, some townships are too quick to say yes. He said one township-approved mine expansion resulted in a neighbor’s pond and wetlands being drained.

“These townships need education. These are complicated issues that need to be considered and they need to look at experts,” he said.

He added concerns about dust drifting, the possibility of water contamination, and other concerns should be addressed.

Most of the panelists agreed the state has a role to play in better regulating aggregate mining.

“Certainly the state has resources that local government would not in regards to evaluating water quality, water quantity,” said Megan Tinsley, the water policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council.

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Lester Graham
/
Michigan Radio
Road construction requires massive amounts of aggregates. At the pace Michigan is building roads now, it's estimated that the state will exhaust the current supply from aggregate mines in five years.

Rep. Lasinski added that it's all about finding balance among the need for aggregate, the township's role in protecting a community, and the state's job of setting down regulations.

“We need EGLE involved. But when it comes down to operations, hours, dust control, those other things, that's where local government has to have the voice of the community,” she said.

Unions and businesses with ties to road-building say there are compromises that could be made in the House version of the proposed legislation. But Mike Alaimo with the Michigan Chamber said local governments cannot be allowed to continue to say no to new mines when there’s a growing need for the material that’s used for road beds, and in concrete and asphalt.

“So we think now is the time to push these bills forward so that we're making sure that taxpayer dollars are used wisely and used efficiently,” Alaimo said.

The alternative, he said, is trucking aggregate longer distances, adding to the cost. That would mean tax dollars would not buy as many miles of road repair.

Clarification: An earlier post did not include the statement by a spokesperson from the Michigan Aggregates Association identifying people in the video as workers in the aggregates industry.

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Radio from 1998-2010.
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