ANNAPOLIS — Supporters of a bill that would require quarry companies to pay for damages to neighbors' properties tried to convince a House committee Thursday that the issue goes beyond Carroll County.
The bill, sponsored by two Carroll delegates, was defeated the last three years, but proponents say this year could be different. A coalition with members from five counties has hired a lobbyist, and the Environmental Matters Committee has seven new members who might be persuaded to vote for the bill.
Both sides were forced to shorten their testimony at the afternoon hearing because committee members had an evening date to wrangle with the budget. They rushed through in 55 minutes.
The bill would presume quarry companies liable for water supply depletion or certainproperty damage within a predetermined area. The Department of Natural Resources supports the measure.
Supporters say it's only fair for quarry companies to pay homeowners if their wells go dry or if sinkholes develop on their properties. They say counties besides Carroll, where two companies have plans for expansion in Wakefield Valley, are affected.
Dixon said, "If they have damage now, there's no recourse."
The quarry companies say the bill is discriminatory becauseit doesn't include other large water users such as municipalities and is unconstitutional because it presumes guilt on the part of the quarries. Supporters also have not shown that neighbors have suffered damage as a result of quarries, the companies said.
Bernard L. Grove, executive vice president of Genstar Stone Products Co., testifiedthat the bill was aimed at Carroll County issues, but its effects onquarries would be felt statewide.
Quarry companies in Maryland paid employees $150 million last year, he said.
"This bill would threaten that," Grove said.
Delegate Richard N. Dixon, D-Carroll, whois sponsoring the bill with Delegate Donald B. Elliott, R-Carroll, Howard, said he talked to a few new members of the committee and that they were "impressed" by supporters' testimony.
Dixon and Elliott both sit on the environment committee. Delegate Lawrence A. LaMotte, D-Carroll, Baltimore, also is a member. The committee will review thetestimony before voting.
Linda Cunfer of New Windsor, spokeswomanfor the Statewide Coalition on Non-Coal Surface Mining, said the quarry companies gave "the same recycled arguments" Thursday that they have in past years.
The environmental group has members from Allegany, Carroll, Frederick, Montgomery and Washington counties. Members of the New Windsor Community Action Project formed the coalition this year to support the bill and related issues, NEWCAP chairman David T.Duree said.
Laura Decker, who lives on Old New Windsor Road near a planned expansion by Lehigh Portland Cement Co., said she couldn't afford to sue the company if her well went dry. "We can't sell a house that has no water," she added.
Duree said Lehigh agreed to the conditions of the bill before it received a permit from DNR to dig a pit near New Windsor.
The permit specifies a "zone of influence" around the proposed quarry area within which Lehigh would be responsible for damages.
"The fact that the company has accepted terms of the permit is significant. It proves that the protections were needed and reasonable," Duree said.
David H. Roush, Lehigh plant manager, said the zone was drawn "arbitrarily." If the zone had been drawn according to results of studies, it would have been within the company'sproperty, he said.
William B. Dulany of Westminster, an attorney for Lehigh, said, "We believe it is fair to say that it is the understandable, but unsupported, fears of some citizens in Carroll County that have been the catalyst for the bill. You will note that we said understandable, not justifiable."
Representatives from the Arundel Corp., which is seeking permission to dig a quarry on its land in Wakefield Valley, also testified.