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Michigan Needs Gravel, Richland Township Residents Don't Want A Mine

A truck hauls dirt to a corner of Top Grade Site Management's Salem Pit in Dorr. Top Grade says this pit is similar to the one proposed in Richland Township.
Rebecca Thiele, WMUK

It’s safe to say most people would rather not have a gravel mine in their back yard. They’re noisy and dusty. And large trucks create traffic jams as they drive in and out of the pit. We may not like gravel mines, but experts say we need them. The country’s infrastructure is crumbling - and it will take trillions of dollars and a lot of sand and gravel to fix it. That will likely lead to more conflicts with residents.

Residents Oppose Proposed Richland Township Gravel Pit

Dave and Becky Sherwood operate a taxidermy business out of their home in Richland Township. It’s tucked back in the woods, just a tenth of a mile from a proposed gravel mine. Becky Sherwood says a lot of things about the project from Top Grade Site Management worry her.

She says her property’s value will likely go down and the life they’ve created out here in the woods just won’t be the same: 

“The noise pollution and the dust. I like to sit in my front yard on my deck and have coffee in the morning. And a 7 o’clock start up, you would not be able to do that. I like to jog on my street as well as the Borgess Run Camp uses the street for practice. The Gull Lake track team uses the street for practice. All of that would be just totally unsafe with all of their trucks going up and down the road.”

According to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, the pit is also close to wetlands.

Top Grade says they plan to mine 27 acres of land in Richland Township, but Becky Sherwood isn’t convinced the company will stop there. Tom Brink of Liberty Farms LLC, the man who co-owns the land for the proposed pit, is also the co-owner of Top Grade.

Liberty Farms owns more than 2,200 acres. Sherwood says she thinks this is the company’s foot in the door.

“I think they’re going to bounce from field to field to field,” she says.

So far, the company hasn’t impressed township officials either. Top Grade hasn’t paid all its fees and hasn’t been clear about how long the job would take. Most important - Top Grade doesn’t have updated studies for the site. Russ Wickland is Richland Township’s planning consultant.

He says Top Grade might have underestimated how much water levels have gone up in the past few years. If the company digs too far down, it could unintentionally hit the water table - and that could create environmental headaches.

“And so they’re saying they’re going to dig down within a certain number of feet, three to five feet," he says. "And so this fluctuating water table is a concern.”

Meanwhile, Michigan Needs Gravel 

But here’s the hard truth - Michigan needs gravel. John Yellich directs the Michigan Geological Survey. He says Michigan’s roads are falling apart. Yellich says just this past summer, the state put out a call for help.

“Where are the aggregates? Where can they be found for the next 10, 25, 50 years - for the Michigan Department of Transportation?” says Yellich.

Aggregates - things like sand and gravel.

Yellich says more people are moving to West Michigan - especially with business growing in Grand Rapids. That means demand for aggregates will only go up - and it has to be from close by. Yellich says you want gravel and sand to be as close to the construction site as possible.

“Transportation is the largest cost that’s in it. And so to transport it more than 25 or 30 miles it becomes, if you will, make it not economic,” says Yellich.

With the state’s need for unpopular sand and gravel mines, more conflicts like the one in Richland Township seem inevitable. You can’t just move gravel to where it won’t bother anybody.

Yellich says there are some things the state can do to make mining easier on the neighbors. First, he says, the state needs to map its gravel resources so that cities and towns can work that into their zoning.

“So that cities, communities can go ahead and zone that as industrial or light industrial so that there can be mining in there. So that everybody knows it ahead of time,” he says.

The second thing - the state has to insure that mining companies do it right. Yellich says, unlike many other states, Michigan doesn’t have standards for sand and gravel mining. He says a gravel mine can actually be a good thing for a community. What once was a gravel pit can become a park, or a lake, or a golf course. But Yellich says that hasn’t been a priority for the state:

“If you drive around enough in the western part of the state, there are a lot of old gravel operations that are not reclaimed. And they look like bad, bad. It’s bad. That if we have a good reclamation plan that, yes there are impacts for the time that it’s happening, but you have a higher and better use afterwards. And I think everybody benefits after that.”

So will Richland Township and Top Grade mining reach a compromise? We’ll have to wait until the next planning meeting in February to find out. Officials at Top Grade Site Management refused to comment for this story.

Rebecca Thiele was an environmental reporter and producer of Arts & More for WMUK. She worked at the station from 2011 to 2019.
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