Abandoning his long-promised bill to make quarry owners responsible for sinkholes, Del. Richard N. Dixon has chosen a different, somewhat tougher, tactic to stop what he sees as irresponsible mining practices.
Mr. Dixon said Friday that he withdrew his bill that would have presumed mining companies were responsible for sinkholes within a specified area because current law already provides that protection.
However, the Democratic delegate from Westminster said he is not through with the quarries that operate in Baltimore, Frederick, Washington and Carroll counties.
A second bill, introduced Feb. 24 and considered Thursday by the Environmental Matters Committee, would void any surface mining permit if a court found that state-imposed conditions challenged by a mine owner were unconstitutional or invalid. Thus a company would risk losing its permit if it challenged restrictions on its operation.
"This is called a hardball law," said Mr. Dixon. "The bottom line is that you either accept the conditions of the permit or you don't do business. [The mining companies] have taken some actions that borderline on being completely irresponsible."
Carroll County residents -- including Mr. Dixon, who lives next to the Genstar Stone Products mine in Westminster -- have long worried that mining operations that pump large quantities of water could cause their wells to go dry and that operators would refuse to take responsibility for the damage.
The current bill stems from legal challenges to a 1991 law that makes mining operations responsible for wells that go dry within their "zone of dewatering influence," an area in which geologists determine that pumping water from quarries will affect nearby wells.
The zone is different for every mining operation, Mr. Dixon said.
In November, three years after the bill was enacted, Maryland's Court of Appeals ruled that the law was constitutional. At the time, mining industry officials said they would consider appealing the ruling again.
"The law passed the General Assembly; the governor signed it; the courts have ruled that it is constitutional, and they still want to play games," Mr. Dixon said. "They don't want to provide the protections citizens want and need."
Currently, a similar condition to the one in Mr. Dixon's bill is on Lehigh Portland Cement's water appropriation permit at the Union Bridge mine, said David H. Roush, plant manager.
Water appropriation permits, also issued by the state Department of Natural Resources, regulate the amount of water pumped out of the quarry pit, he said.
Mining permits -- the subject of Mr. Dixon's bill -- govern such matters as use of explosives, mining plans and how the company will reclaim the land after a quarry is exhausted, Mr. Roush said.
"A water appropriation permit isn't just for mining, it's for anybody that needs to take water," he said. "A surface mining permit is all about the requirements to run a surface mine."
Mr. Roush said he is unsure why the special provisions were attached to Lehigh's water permit. However, "We chose not to challenge any parts of the water appropriations permit when it was issued," he said.
Lehigh is a member of the Maryland Aggregates Association, which is opposing Mr. Dixon's bill, Mr. Roush said.
Genstar, a Baltimore County company which mines stone in Carroll County, opposes the bill, said Kim Snyder, the quarry's vice president of aggregates.
"It would have potentially disastrous results," Mr. Snyder said. He argued that anyone -- including private citizens -- could challenge a permit, endangering the mining industry in Maryland.
"Over 50 percent of the stone production and 100 percent of the cement production in the state could be shut down by one person exercising his constitutional right to see whether a regulation is constitutional or not," he said.
But Mr. Dixon said the state has the right to regulate mining in any way it sees fit. "The current natural resources code states that they can place any conditions they want on a permit, particularly a mining permit," he said, noting that the Department of Natural Resources testified in support of the bill at Thursday's hearing.
Charles Wheeler, deputy director of the Department of Natural Resource's Water Resources Administration, said the administration offered only one amendment to the bill. "Our amendment was basically to limit the application to permits issued after the effective date of the bill rather than applying it retroactively to mining permits that are out there," he said.
Since all permits come up for renewal, every mining operation would eventually come under the new regulations if the bill is passed, Mr. Wheeler said.