Quarries on Notice

November 24, 1994

By upholding a 1991 law that has been tangled up in the courts since its passage, Maryland's Court of Appeals has given landowners near quarries the legal grounds to recover damages when their wells run dry. But property owners still face an uphill battle in recouping any money.

For years, limestone quarries pumped large amounts of water with impunity. If the wells of adjacent or nearby property owners dried up, these landowners had no legal basis on which to recover any damages. Carroll's Del. Richard N. Dixon led the legislative effort to correct this inequity. Under the legislation, there is a presumption that mining operations are responsible for the loss of water supplies in surrounding areas -- known as "zones of influence." The law applies only to four Maryland counties with large limestone formations: Carroll, Baltimore, Frederick and Washington. The burden is placed on quarries to demonstrate that their excavations did not disrupt underground water supplies.

Mining companies fought this legislation, saying it put them in the position of being "guilty until proven innocent." The Court of Appeals has yet to issue its full, written opinion, but presumably the court will answer the mining companies' contention. It is important to note that the principle of "innocent until proven guilty" usually applies to criminal rather than civil proceedings. Also, it's illogical to assume that large mining operations don't have any impact on water supplies.

But even with this change in the burden, there is no guarantee that collection of damages will be easy. The Department of Natural Resources has to define the zones of influence around existing quarry pits. Mining companies can contest the delineation administratively and judicially. It may be years before all the appeals are exhausted.

Encouraged by the successful judicial test of this law, Mr. Dixon plans to introduce a measure in the next session of the General Assembly that presumes quarries also are responsible for sinkholes on nearby properties.

Quarry operators are clearly on the defensive. It will be in their interest to pay much closer attention to the impact their mining operations have on nearby properties, if they are to avoid large damage awards and punitive legislation that seems to be lurking on the horizon.

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