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Controversial gravel permit bill up for vote in Senate committee Tuesday

Pixabay/creative commons

Update:  The State Senate Transportation Committee voted Tuesday to approve SB 431, a bill that would require townships to approve nearly all gravel mining permits, even if the mining operation would cause serious environmental consequences.

Republicans Tom Barrett, Kimberly LaSata, Roger Victory, Rick Outman  and Dan Lauwers voted yes;  Democratic sponsor Adam Hollier also voted yes.

Democrat Erika Geiss was the lone no vote.

Democrat Marshall Bullock and Republican Ed McBroom chose to pass on the vote.

McBroom made the following statement, prior to his pass:

"I’m still very convinced that there is a significant problem that needs to be addressed. Ones that you bring up, the ones that I’m familiar with in my area and hear from my citizens, township officials and others. And so, I do believe that this is moving in the right direction, but I still have a couple of areas that I don’t feel are quite ready yet, and I don’t want to oppose this moving forward and continuing the discussion with a larger group of our colleagues at this point, but I just want to express that I still have some very serious concerns, particularly in just how, who ultimately becomes the arbiter of kind of when something should or shouldn’t occur.

John Sellek, a spokesman for a coalition of construction and aggregate trade groups called the Build It Michigan Strong coalition said in a press release,  "SB 431 SB 431 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.

Original post:

A state Senate committee is expected to vote Tuesday on a fiercely contested gravel mining bill. 

Senate Bill 431 would let gravel companies dig wherever they find enough gravel for a profitable mine, even if it's a few hundred feet from existing homes, churches and schools, and even if the mine would cause serious environmental damage.

If the committee approves SB 431, it goes to the Senate floor, and if approved there, it goes to the state House, where it will face strong opposition from Representative Gary Howell (R-North Branch0, whose district includes an area rich in gravel, also known as aggregate.

Howell says the bill was written by and for the aggregate industry, specifically, Levy Corporation, which has been battling local elected officials in Metamora Township in his district for years in hopes of digging a new large gravel mine on property adjacent to a Superfund site.

A plume of toxic chemicals has leached into the groundwater from the site, and as it spreads, many nearby residents have had to be taken off well water. They fear that a gravel mine, which uses large amounts of groundwater, will cause the plume to move faster and further.

Howell calls a companion bill, SB 849, that was introduced in response to all the criticism, "malarkey."  

"Nothing has really changed," he says. "They've put a few minor amendments on it, but all they're really doing is putting lipstick on a pig."

But gravel companies say townships are placing too many onerous restrictions on where they can mine, and killing projects via lengthy delays. They say they're running out of gravel sites that are close to construction and highway projects.   

Legislative proponents of the bill have touted a study by the Michigan Department of Transportation purporting to show that the state is running low on aggregate.

But emails obtained by opponents revealed that officials at the department allowed the aggregate industry to choose the contractors who would conduct the study, as well as inform the department what result they expected from the study.

The bill has been adamantly opposed by the Michigan Township Association as well as Kassan Township's Republican Supervisor, Greg Julian. His township is rich in sand and gravel, and it has set aside what he said was a generous 14% of its entire land base in a special gravel mining zone as a compromise with aggregate companies.

But the passage of SB 431 would ruin the rural township's peace and quiet, allowing mines to encroach on residential neighborhoods, according to Julian.

He says a gravel mining company has already clear-cut large swaths of land it purchased for future mines, in anticipation of SB 431 passing, he surmises.

Two Republicans on the State Transportation Committee have been shepherding SB 431 through hearings.  The offices of State Senator Tom Barrett (R-Charlotte) and State Senator Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan) did not respond to inquiries about Tuesday's hearing.

NOTE:  This story was updated to correct the spelling of Marshall Bullock's name and identify him as a Democrat, not a Republican.

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.