ANNAPOLIS — The state Senate unanimously approved a bill Friday making mining companies responsible for damages they might cause.
The House must concur with Senate amendments before passage becomes official, but no problems are expected, said the bill's co-sponsors, Delegates RichardN. Dixon, D-Carroll, and Donald B. Elliott, R-Carroll, Howard.
The approval concludes a four-year battle the two delegates wagedagainst the industry to protect residents' property.
After opposing the bill since its inception in 1988, industry representatives agreed last week to support the legislation with certain amendments onceit appeared likely to pass a Senate committee.
"This is significant, major legislation," said Dixon. "I can accept the stylistic changes. It doesn't change the substance of the bill. It still provides protections to people that they never had before."
Under the amendedbill, mining companies would be presumed liable for water supply depletions within a state-established "zone of influence" around their operations and would be required to replace water supplies. They couldavoid replacing water supplies only by demonstrating to the state Department of Natural Resources by "clear and convincing evidence" -- ahigh legal standard of proof -- that the damages were not caused by extracting water from a quarry.
But for sinkholes -- sudden subsidences of land that can occur naturally or by extracting ground water -- mining companies would have the opportunity to contest a DNR ruling on the cause of the damages. The industry would not be presumed liable for land damages and would have a lesser standard of proof than required for cases of water supply depletions. A quarry company would be required to pay landowners for damages or restore property to its original condition if DNR affirms its ruling against it. The bill also permits individual residents the opportunity to contest a DNR ruling.
The amendment treating sinkholes differently than water supply damages makes the bill more palatable to the industry, said David Roush, plant manager at Lehigh Portland Cement Co. of Union Bridge.
"It appears to me the best compromise the industry could get," he said. "It addresses the primary fear of citizens living near quarries, and that has been water."
The bill was inspired in 1988 by concernedWakefield Valley residents who feared that three quarry companies planning expansions in the limestone-rich area posed a threat to their water supplies, property and quality of life. Residential developmenthas encroached on mining in the Wakefield Valley area, as in other areas of the state.
The bill applies only in Carroll, Baltimore, Frederick and Washington counties, where limestone mining takes place. It does not apply to development built within the scientifically determined zone once it has been established.
A spokesman for a five-county citizens coalition that lobbied for the bill expressed mild disappointment that the group's position had been compromised by the amendments. The coalition, which includes Wakefield Valley residents, was not consulted about the revisions, said David T. Duree of New Windsor. But after three years of defeats, the outcome still was sweet, hesaid.
"From the citizens point of view, there will be protectionsin place that were called for 20 years ago," he said. "The benefit to the community is greater than having nothing. It's definitely landmark legislation, definitely a plus."
Dixon said the last, freneticweek of the session is no time to quibble about amendments that wouldn't change the thrust of the bill -- protecting water supplies and allowing residents with grievances to seek redress without going to court. A 1968 precedent-setting Maryland court case ruled that a quarrycompany was not liable for damages to nearby Carroll farm, advising the General Assembly to provide a remedy through law.
"I've been around long enough to know you can't always have a bill just the way you want it," said Dixon. "I would have preferred no amendments, but I'm a realist."
Mining industry officials consistently objected to presuming quarry companies liable for damages that couldn't be proven. They also said that instances of wells running dry near mining operations have been rare and that the companies have volunteered to replace water supplies and repair property damages in some cases.
Theyeventually became resigned to losing the battle this year, said Roush.
"If indeed this can bring enough sense of protection to citizens that we don't need another series of bills next year and the year after, then I can say yes, I'm happy we came to a resolution," he said.