ANNAPOLIS — Carroll delegates and environmental activists hope a new, broad-based citizens coalition will tip the balance in a four-year struggle between legislators and mining companies over the industry's responsibility to pay for damages.
But a representative of a quarry company that has steadfastly fought the legislation said the bill must be amended in fairness to the industry.
Delegates Richard N. Dixon, D-Carroll, and Donald B. Elliott, R-Carroll, Howard, are sponsoring a bill that would presume quarry companies liable for water supply depletion or certain property damages within a predetermined area. The 1991 version, which would require the state Department of Natural Resources to establish a "zone of influence" around mining operations, is the same as last year's bill supported by the agency.
DNR has not taken a position on this year's bill, said Robert Miller, deputy director of Water Resources Administration, who added that the proposed protections are warranted because many quarries are near growing residential areas.
Mining lobbyists helped defeat the bill last year in the House Environmental Matters Committee, but supporters of the legislation say they have a new trump card that could help their cause.
"I think we have an excellent chance this year," said Dixon. "We have a very activist group of citizens working with us from a number of counties."
David Duree, a Carroll environmental group representative who has worked with the delegates for several years on the bill, said the Statewide Coalition on Non-coal Surface Mining could sway some votes this year. The coalition includes members from Carroll, Frederick, Montgomery, Washington and Allegany counties.
Duree's group, the New Windsor Community Action Project, was aware that other similar organizations existed across the state and took the initiative to forge a union to "deal with the impact of quarrying in our communities," he said.
Citizens supporting the legislation last year were not well-mobilized, said NEWCAP members.
The House committee has seven new members on its 24-legislator panel, which also could help the bill's chances, said Elliott.
Abill initially was introduced in 1988 in response to Wakefield Valley residents' concerns that mining expansion plans in the region coulddeplete water supplies and create sinkholes -- depressions in the ground caused by the extraction of water.
Three companies -- Lehigh Portland Cement Co., Genstar Stone Products Co. and The Arundel Corp.-- have plans either to expand or establish a quarry in west-centralCarroll.
The bill would require DNR to establish a zone around mining operations based on geological and hydrological conditions, which the agency does routinely when issuing water appropriations permitsfor surface mining. Within that zone, quarry companies would be required to replace depleted water supplies and compensate landowners forproperty damage.
Under permits now issued, quarry companies are not presumed strictly liable for damages. Anyone bringing suit againsta quarry company now would likely have to instigate a DNR investigation and incur significant costs in court in seeking compensation, said Miller.
"My major concern is protecting people in the event of an environmental catastrophe," said Elliott. "We're not trying to put quarry companies out of business. We realize the resource is found only in particular areas, and they have to work there. We're just trying to get quarry companies to be good corporate neighbors."
Mining lobbyists have argued that the bill unfairly presumes quarry companies guilty when other factors could cause water depletion.
"We are working very hard to get the bill amended so we have something to protect the water around us while not trampling on the company," said Bernard L. Grove, Genstar executive vice president.
Officials representing Lehigh and The Arundel Corp. declined to comment.
Elliott said he expects quarry companies to battle the bill. "We've tried to work with them, but we've gotten nowhere," he said.
Dixon said he has worked on several other quarry bills