Gravel mining stirs statewide controversy
By EVAN JONES
Capital News Service
LANSING — As road funding remains the center of uncertain state budget negotiations, a road materials dispute is emerging.
Sen. Adam Hollier, D-Detroit, has introduced legislation to standardize how gravel pits are approved. That would overturn the authority local governments have to regulate them, unless “very serious consequences” would result.
Local officials say Hollier’s bill goes too far and restricts their authority to protect residents from noise and dust.
“Local control is fairly limited but the aspects that we do have control over, we’d like to keep,” said Neil Sheridan, executive director of the Michigan Townships Association.
The bill is referred to the Senate Natural Resources Committee where it will definitely get a hearing, said Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Marquette, who chairs the committee.
“You’re looking at seeing something happen within the next six months,” he said.
Gravel mining operations, and how to approve them, has been a decades-long battle involving Supreme Court decisions siding with both local control and state centralization.
Among the concerns is that the bill restricts noise and hours of operation, said Judy Allen, director of government relations for the townships group.
One way it could be abused is that it allows an average noise level of 75 decibels throughout the day, Allen said.
“I can go 140 decibels for four hours and silent for four hours?” Allen said.
Local governments could control hours of operation under the bill, but they cannot limit operations between 5 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Hollier said he is willing to discuss strengthening regulations on noise and pollution.
The bill would restore state authority previously delegated from the Zoning Enabling Act in 2006, he said. Its introduction follows reports of a shortage of gravel needed to build Michigan roads.
Supporters argue the bill’s passage would make gravel more accessible. Efforts to increase gravel supply also reflect measures to reduce rising costs of road construction.
Critics have dismissed a 2016 Michigan Department of Transportation report on gravel shortages as heavily influenced by the aggregate industry. That prompted state auditors to start a review.
McBroom said he was wary of removing local control except when absolutely necessary, but wants the Michigan Office of the Auditor General’s report to lay out the facts before deciding his position.
Questions need to be answered about the validity of a gravel shortage before advancing the bill through the Senate committee, he said.
Ed Noyola, deputy director for the County Road Association of Michigan, wasn’t ready to dismiss the study’s conclusion of a gravel shortage outright.
“We do need gravel,” he said. “When you use gravel, especially for asphalt and concrete, it has to be a specific type of gravel and size.”
Not all gravel pits have the same quality and quantity of aggregates within them to be used for roads, he said.
Many gravel mines are privately owned, giving them a competitive incentive to not disclose their stockpiles publicly, McBroom said.
The association’s engineer found the MDOT report reasonable, he said.
Noyola surveyed counties across the state to assess the gravel supply.
Oakland, Kent, Ionia, Ottawa, Manistee, Bariga and Houghton counties all reported that their gravel mines would run out within 10 years, he said.
The survey is incomplete because about 30 counties have not yet responded, he said.
Noyola said he wasn’t ready to take a position on the bill.
“This is more of a local control issue than anything else,” he said. “That’s between the Legislature and the township association.”
When buying a home for the first time, Sheridan said he was alarmed by the noise from a nearby gravel mine.
“Can you imagine what a rock crusher sounds like at 8 a.m. on a Saturday?” he said. “Louder than my baby.”
But Hollier said he has lived within 2 miles of a gravel recycling facility for years without hearing a sound until a recent tour of the facility.
No one wants to live next to a gravel mine, but they have to go somewhere, Hollier said.
A statewide process is equitable because the same rules are applied to each gravel operation proposal, Hollier said. Local control can lead to placing gravel operations only near poor and disadvantaged communities.
”By having a clear and fair process, the extremely wealthy individual is playing by the same rules as the extremely poor individual,” Hollier said.
PHOTO: "Gravel" by thebeanblog is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0