MICHIGAN MINING FIRM CAN'T GET FOOTHOLD IN CONTINUING DUNE BATTLE

MICHIGAN MINING FIRM CAN'T GET FOOTHOLD IN CONTINUING DUNE BATTLE

Political activism was the last thing on Charles and Jana Davis's minds seven years ago when choosing the spot for their Lake Michigan vacation house.

But that hasn't kept them out of a decades-old fray over mining the majestic dunes along the lake's eastern shoreline.Mr. Davis is president of Preserve the Dunes, which is battling TechniSand Inc. of nearby Bridgman. The 375-member group claims the mining company is violating terms of operating permits issued under a state law meant to protect the dunes, and is creating a nuisance besides.

TechniSand says it is obeying the law, and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality agrees.

''I wonder if this isn't a Nimby (Not In My Back Yard) thing - they like the products that come from sand but just want it done somewhere else,'' says Jeffrey Fallon, vice president of TechniSand's parent company, Fairmont Minerals of Chardon, Ohio.

The dunes, formed over thousands of years as glaciers receded and winds blew sand from the basin that would form Lake Michigan, rise intermittently from the Indiana border to the eastern Upper Peninsula.

The most spectacular are hundreds of feet high and a mile or more wide. Topsoil and trees cover some; others are bare except for patches of dune grass.

''There's no other freshwater dune system like this in the entire world,'' says Tanya Cabala of the Muskegon, Mich.-based Lake Michigan Federation.

Environmentalists see the dunes as geological wonders, home to richly diverse populations of birds and plants, that shouldn't be mined - period.

From the industry's perspective, mining dune sand is essential for the Michigan economy - particularly the auto industry - and does the environment relatively little harm.

''An amazingly small percentage of the dunes is open to mining, and there are some very clearly defined laws that limit what we can do,'' Mr. Fallon says.

Most of the sand goes into molds that shape foundry products such as vehicle engine blocks. The rest is used in a variety of goods, from glass to toothpaste.

Dune mining was unregulated in Michigan until 1976, when a law was passed to minimize environmental damage without destroying the industry. It requires companies to obtain DEQ permits to remove the sand.