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A retired state geologist on helping communities review, deny aggregate mines

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Mike Wilczynski has lost count of how many townships he’s presented at.

“Oh, geez maybe about a dozen? I really don't know,” he said.

Wilczynski is a retired state geologist. And for the last few years, he’s traveled across Michigan to help municipalities review – and deny – applications for sand and gravel mines.

“I originally just planned on doing nature hikes and stuff like that, and just kind of took a different direction,” he said. “And you know, I don't like golf, and this is much more fun than crossword puzzles and daytime TV.”

It all started when Wilczynski worked with the Friends of the Platte River Watershed to block a gravel mine from being permitted along the Platte River. Word got around, and residents near other prospective mines started reaching out.

He now travels to communities and provides expert advice as part of an informal network of volunteers, residents, and community groups like Friends of Grass Lake and Healthy Waters Alliance. So far, he’s helped block seven mine permits.

“These people, sometimes they just do a Google search on my name and find me,” Wilczynski said, adding, “You can't beat my rates.”

Wilczynski provides his technical assistance for free. He used to work for the mining industry, and he said he’s not against mining for aggregate materials, but it has to be done right.

“If I saw a mine that was in a good location, or had minimal serious consequences, I would advise them on what they can do, but I probably wouldn't get too deeply involved,” he said.

Michigan has one key law that allows communities to reject aggregate mines. It’s called the Zoning and Enabling Act, and it gives permitting power to local authorities. But under the law, local governments can only deny applications for a limited set of reasons.

They can say no if a mining company can’t prove a need for the material, or if a proposed area doesn't have a known deposit worth value.

If a company meets those criteria, an application can still be rejected if there’s evidence the mine will harm humans, property values, or the environment.

“If there's wetlands nearby, inland waters, creeks, I look for the presence of shallow groundwater,” he said. “High population areas that could be subjected to silica dust, traffic issues. And archaeology sites, cultural sites...”

The act gives local communities authority to reject a mine, but local control is still tenuous.

Just last year,a package of bills in Lansing would have shifted approval from local authorities to the state’s environmental department. The Democrat lawmaker who introduced the bills said it would make the approval process more consistent and help townships that don’t have the expertise to review applications.

But opponents argued the bills would fast-track approval and limit environmental oversight.

Although the bills died in lame duck, a citizen group we talked to said they’re still concerned about the future of local control in permitting sand and gravel mines.

Mike Wilczynski
Mike Wilczynski

Wilczynski said he believes local control is more democratic, but the demand for his technical assistance does highlight an issue in how aggregate mines are reviewed.

“The planning commission and the township should actually be hiring a third party, someone who’s an expert, to review everything that's submitted,” Wilczynski said. “But a lot of times they don't do that; the planning commission wants to review it on their own.”

Wilczynski said some local authorities don’t even know it’s legal to deny a mine...

“They were confusing it with oil wells,” he said. “An oil well - you can't zone that out. They can put that wherever they want pretty much, but mining is not that way.”

...and mining companies can submit incomplete applications.

“It's like they come looking for low-hanging fruit,” Wilczynski said.

...or in some cases, threaten legal action.

“They start being a bully to the planning commission, so these townships feel intimidated - they can't afford a lawsuit,” he said. “And they kind of skip over issues, and mines are permitted that shouldn't have been.”

The demand for aggregate materials isn’t going away, but Wilczynski said the approval process for mines could be improved by enforcing existing laws, namely the Zoning and Enabling Act.

In the meantime, he said he’ll keep supporting residents, who are worried about mines in their communities... and he’ll keep working to block mines that shouldn’t be allowed.

“I feel good [supporting local organizations and residents] because these mines should not have gone in,” Wilczynski said. “They would have had issues in my opinion, and I feel good that I saved people living near them a lot of grief.”

Reviewing a mine application can be a messy process. Wilczynski said there’s been moments he regrets getting involved. But for now, stopping - what he calls - an unnecessary mine beats playing golf and watching daytime TV.

As of this story publication, Wilczynski is currently working with the Parma Preservation Society, Citizens to Protect the Irish Hills, and the Sharon Township Preservation Society to review aggregate mine permits.

Teresa Homsi is an environmental reporter and Report for America Corps Member based in northern Michigan for WCMU. She covers rural environmental issues, focused on contamination, conservation, and climate change.