Tom and Michelle Joliat's lovely home in Metamora, Michigan is situated high on a hill with a stunning view of the woods below.
Normally, it's peaceful and idyllic here. Metamora Township is a rural area about 25 miles southeast of Flint.
But in the distance, you can sometimes hear the faint drone of the U.S. EPA drilling yet another monitoring well. The wells are monitoring the movement of a plume of groundwater contaminated with 1,4 dioxane and other toxic chemicals.
The plume comes from the Metamora Superfund site, where thousands of containers of illegally stored chemicals lie buried in the ground. Removing them is too risky; it would spread the contamination even faster.
Can't drink the water, and worse to come?
Michelle Joliat points to a big bottled water dispenser in the kitchen. Over the years, they've watched their neighbors get taken off well water, one by one, as the plume of 1,4 dioxane spreads. Now, the plume has reached their well.
"We have to haul drinking water twice a day to the bedroom and bathroom upstairs," she sighs, as their massive wolfhound nuzzles whoever he can find willing to scratch behind his ears.
The Joliats are worried about more than their drinking water.
Edw. Levy Company, which owns gravel mines in Michigan and beyond, wants to open a 500 acre gravel mining operation 300 feet from their house. Phase two of the operation would involve the loss of much of their wooded view, replacing it with a less stunning view of mining equipment and trucks.
"Establishing a huge, huge gravel pit that sucks water from a contaminated aquifer is just foolish," says Tom Joliat, a retired physician. "It's foolish!"
Metamora Township's elected leadership agrees. For years, they've been fighting the Levy Company's lawsuits against their gravel mine zoning ordinance.
Gravel mines dig deep into the ground, and they typically use a lot of water. Environmental groups say a gravel quarry could pull even more contamination from the Superfund site into the groundwater, and perhaps send it in different directions than it is flowing now.
Township officials say SB 431 would make it much more difficult, perhaps impossible, for it to prevail in any lawsuit defending their zoning ordinance, because the bill does not require mining companies to
consider environmental harms before opening a new pit.
And neither the U.S. EPA nor the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy currently have the authority to stop a proposed mining operation from going in.
Opponents say that "300 feet" language is no coincidence
SB 431 strikes down most townships' rights to establish zoning restrictions for gravel mining.
Companies could load trucks between the hours of 5 a.m. and 7 p.m., Monday through Saturday, or longer if necessary. The bill expressly permits gravel mining 300 feet from homes, the same distance of homes from Levy Company's proposed Metamora site.
State Representative Gary Howell (R-North Branch) says that's no coincidence. He used to be Metamora Township's attorney.
"This bill was written by the gravel companies and for the gravel companies, by the lobbyists and their attorneys," says Howell. "It's specifically to help out the Levy Corporation and other big gravel companies."
Other language in the bill requires townships to litigate any disputes "de novo." That means all of the studies, documents, and court pleadings from Metamora Township's long legal battle against Levy would not be admissible in any new court fight.
The township, which has won court battle after court battle against Levy since 1980, would have to start from scratch, says Howell, which would make it much more expensive to defend against a new lawsuit.
Now, he says, Levy is seeking in state law what it failed to get from judges.
Some are cagey about their involvement in drafting SB 431
Senate Bill 431 was introduced by a Detroit Democrat, Senator Adam Hollier.
Hollier accepted a $1,000 donation from the Michigan Aggregates Association, a trade group for gravel mining companies, but he says that's not why he introduced the bill.
Hollier initially declined to say who helped draft SB 431, other than the Michigan Legislative Service Bureau, but he eventually acknowledged he did work with the Michigan Aggregates Association on the bill.
He also said he worked with State Representative Triston Cole, a Republican who represents Antrim, Otsego, Charlevoix, Montmorency and Oscoda counties in northern Michigan.
A spokesman for Edw. Levy Company terminated an interview after he was asked if attorneys for the company were also involved in writing the bill.
The Michigan Aggregates Association did not respond to a request for an interview.
Gravel companies say townships are hurting taxpayers by driving up road costs
Regardless of who wrote the bill, gravel companies across the state say it's necessary, especially to keep costs down for road projects.
Kevin Cotter is General Manager of Bay Aggregates. He testified about the bill in Lansing recently.
He says townships are increasing the cost of building roads by denying or delaying permits for aggregate mining, meaning, gravel and sand quarries.
"We are left to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars and unnecessary time pursuing permits to remove aggregate from land that we own," he told the state Senate Transportation Committee.
Cotter says older gravel mining operations are closing, and townships are preventing new ones from taking their place. Or rather, preventing new ones in the right place.
"Because the issue is how much aggregate is accessible in relative or reasonable proximity to the job," he says.
The farther a truck has to haul aggregate, says Cotter, the higher the cost. Aggregate is generally about 4-5% of the cost of a road project; transportation about 10%.
But geologist Bill Langer doesn't think much of the gravel companies' arguments of necessity. He also testified recently before the Senate Transportation Committee.
Langor is an expert on aggregate. He was paid to do studies for the Metamora Land Preservation Alliance, which opposes the Edw. Levy project in Metamora Township.
Langor says Michigan is incredibly rich in aggregate, and it's not true that townships are refusing to allow new gravel mines.
He agrees that sometimes companies have to haul gravel farther than they want, but says flatly, "the issues that the aggregate companies are raising are really not factual. They're not based on fact."
Townships say the bill is unnecessary and extreme
Townships are really worried about SB 431, even if they don't have a Superfund site.
Greg Julian is supervisor of Kasson Township, near Traverse City. Practically the whole township lies on sand and gravel, so conflicts over mining aren't new.
"A citizen would buy a house and a few months later he would discover that a gravel company wants to purchase the property next door and turn it into a pit," says Julian. "Well, not many people want to live next door to a mining operation or a gravel pit."
Julian says eventually, the township established a special zone for gravel mining. It's big, nearly 14% of its total land base.
But it's not next to people's homes, so they can enjoy peace and quiet. He says gravel companies should work cooperatively with townships and not try to use the law to get their own way all the time.
He says Senate Bill 431 would virtually eliminate protections for residents.
"We have property rights, and they're being infringed on by SB 431 and the sponsors of this bill," he says. "They need to take a hard look at what they're doing to this state."
The Senate Transportation Committee will hold a third hearing on the bill on Wednesday.