‘Insulting’: Environmental agenda stalls in state House as industry-funded Dems move mining bills

Advocacy groups said they shouldn’t have to spend energy and resources fighting bad environmental legislation when Democrats control state government.

Over 100 days into the Michigan Democratic Party’s first-in-a-generation trifecta control over the Legislature and governor’s office, no significant environmental legislation is moving. 

Instead, industry-backed mining bills that critics say would dramatically increase air and water pollution are being debated in committee. And one Democratic lawmaker behind the bill, Rep. Angela Witwer (D-Delta Township), has received thousands of dollars in political donations in recent months from a mining industry trade group, a Planet Detroit analysis of campaign finance records found

At a Tuesday morning press conference, a coalition of Michigan environmental groups voiced frustration with State House Democratic leadership over what they view as a prioritization of industry over voters. The groups charged that they helped Democrats secure a razor-thin state House majority and viewed the lack of action on environmental priorities as a slap in the face. 

“I don’t recall hearing anyone running for office on promises to make it easier to open aggregate mines that threaten our drinking water and Great Lakes,” said Sean McBrearty, director of Clean Water Action. “House Democrats won their majority by running on broadly popular issues like holding polluting corporations accountable and ensuring all residents have safe, clean and affordable drinking water, and taking real action to address the climate crisis.” 

Democratic leadership told the groups they would have to put their entire agenda on hold until October after the budget is complete, said Christy McGillivray, political director with the Sierra Club of Michigan who lobbies the state Legislature for stronger environmental protections. 

“That same ‘wait your turn’ delay clearly does not apply to polluter-backed bills,” McGillivray added, referencing the mining bills, which were debated in a committee hearing at the same time as the press conference. 

Expectations were high for a new era of state environmental protection after Democrats in the November elections won full control of the legislative process for the first time in over 40 years. 

Decades of GOP control or obstruction decimated the state’s environmental regulatory apparatus. Among other provisions, Republicans refused to force industry to pay to clean up its pollution, set up “polluter panels” that allowed industry power to slow regulations, and took other measures to kneecap environmental regulators.  

Many Democrats promised to undo laws that have hamstrung regulators for decades and make polluters pay to clean up their messes. Others expected stronger regulations around toxic PFAS pollution that has contaminated drinking water across the state or legislation that would bar companies like Nestle from bottling the state’s fresh water. 

After years of mounting frustration with DTE Energy and Consumers Energy over high rates and long outages, many Democrats promised a shift from the timid GOP response to one that would force the companies to pollute less, boost renewable energy projects and access, and better compensate residents who lose power.  

The new legislature also has not advanced any environmental justice bills that would provide relief from pollution in lower-income communities or those with majority Black or minority populations, said Roshan Krishnan, policy associate with the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition

“It’s an insult,” he said. “We were told this administration cared about environmental justice … but where is the proof?” Bills that the MEJC has pushed to require private utilities to pay more to customers following long outages or rein in cumulative air pollution in overburdened communities have so far gone nowhere. 

“These are small basic steps toward environmental justice, a bare minimum,” he added. “And they are nowhere to be found.”

The groups say industry influence in Lansing is behind the delays.

McGillivray labeled it a “powerful, polluter-backed, secret money agenda,” though she said she could not immediately provide proof of dark money groups spending this legislative session. Political nonprofit records are usually unavailable for nearly two years after the end of a calendar year, meaning it is impossible to furnish immediate proof. 

However, dark money groups affiliated with DTE and Consumers Energy are notorious for throwing money around in the state legislature. Most state legislators have also received some money from utility industry political action committees (PACs), and DTE’s political spending has jumped in recent years. 

Meanwhile, the Michigan Aggregates Association, the lobbying organization for the sand and gravel industry, gave $5,500 to Witwer, the mining bills’ co-author, between late 2022 and early 2023. The Michigan Manufacturers Association, another prominent industry group known for its political spending, gave her a $500 donation in February.  In February she also received $1,000 from the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association PAC, which received several large donations from the owner and executives of the mining company that wants to build a new mine in Metamora Township. 

The MAA has been the main advocate of legislation that would eliminate local control over permitting and oversight of gravel mines. That comes after a 2016 Detroit Free Press investigation found the MAA secretly shaped a Michigan Department of Transportation study that supported a proposal for a Metamora Township mine to the point of spelling out the study’s findings. 

The MAA and Rep. Witwer did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

At Tuesday’s press conference, the environmental coalition took aim at House Bills 4526, 4527 and 4528, which were introduced on May 3 as a bipartisan package. Under the bills, responsibilities for large mines would be shifted to state regulators, while oversight of small mines would be eliminated, the groups said. 

The bills’ supporters say the legislation is needed to streamline the supply chain for the state’s road materials, and they have said “NIMBY-ism” prevents essential mines from opening. 

But the new law would not consider issues that matter to residents who have spoken out against proposed mines, like dust, localized air pollution, water pollution, and property values, said Conan Smith, president of the Michigan Environmental Council. He pointed to toxic dioxin pollution in drinking water stemming from a mining operation in Metamora Township.  

The state already operates 570 mines statewide, Smith added, and has such a surplus aggregate that it is exporting the material to other states.

“We’re not even using this material in our own house,” he said. “We don’t need it, we shouldn’t be mining for it, and if we’re going to mine for it, it needs to be highly regulated at the state and local levels.”

Similar bills introduced in several previous GOP-controlled legislatures were killed by bipartisan opposition. 

“There are much more important environmental issues that ought to be on the agenda right now, issues that enjoy broad public support and bipartisan support,” Smith added. 

McGillivray said the groups should not have to spend their energy and resources fighting bad legislation when Democrats control the government. 

“[The mining bills are] disappointing enough on its own, but these actions are coming before state House leadership has taken action on any of the campaign platforms that helped deliver the Democratic trifecta in Lansing,” she said.


Our reporting 

runs deep.

Get the latest local enviro news in your inbox with Planet Detroit.

Scroll to Top