After a year of work, a Charles County task force studying sand and gravel mining is readying its report amid criticism that its findings disregard homeowner and environmental concerns in favor of the industry.
The debate represents the latest stage in a controversy that is growing as more homeowners move into rural areas where companies extract sand and gravel from unsightly and noisy strip mines.
The taxpayer-supported panel has drawn up an array of tentative recommendations, including one that would give some property owners a right to mine gravel. Owners now seek permission on a case-by-case basis, a process that mining critics consider an important safeguard against pollution and other possible problems.
Another recommendation would exempt smaller mines from having to study whether their truck traffic chokes roads. Another would weaken language in the county's guiding Comprehensive Plan that calls for reducing mining's impact on the public.
"All of it disregards the homeowner completely -- what it does to property values, to lifestyles," said Rupert P. Cooksey Jr., vice president of Neighbors of Zekiah Swamp, a group formed to fight a proposal to mine 500 acres in Dentsville. "It's ridiculous."
One task force member defended the group's work.
"I think something reasonable is coming out of it," said John Havenner, a retired officer with the Waldorf-based Chaney group of companies that is a leading local extractor of sand and gravel. "Some of these people, they don't want sand and gravel to exist."
The 13-member task force was appointed last year by county commissioners who may accept, reject or modify its findings.
The task force met last week, hoping to finalize recommendations that now exist in a 29-page draft report. Prolonged discussion prevented that and the body will meet again Tuesday evening, said Charles County Commissioner W. Daniel Mayer (R-La Plata), the task force's chairman.
The county has roughly two dozen sand and gravel mines, where large parcels are stripped bare so earthmovers can extract broad veins of sand and gravel.
Such open-pit operations prompted little comment when Charles County was mainly rural. But as suburban development spreads, the mines increasingly attract opposition from homeowners confronted by noise and dust, motorists who must joust with gravel-laden trucks, and environmentalists who cite possible damage to nearby waterways from sediment that runs off land stripped bare of vegetation.
Industry leaders say noise and dust are of little notice to anybody more than a few hundred feet from a mine. They say environmental damage is nil because the mines generate no toxic chemicals.
However, opponents cite documented instances of fine, smothering silt running from a Waldorf mine into the fragile Jorden Swamp last year. Industry leaders called that an exception to a generally fine record.
"We want to do the best we can," Havenner said. "It's a necessary industry."
The task force on Tuesday will be asked to approve a draft recommendation that the county establish Mining Preservation Districts.
Proposed mines in such districts would still face a review in which county officials could impose conditions such as limitations on hours of operation. But under the mining district recommendation, the county ultimately would be required to grant permission to mine in those areas.
The task force last week approved an exemption from traffic studies for mines smaller than 51 acres, or those that generate fewer than 70 truck loads a day. That equals 140 truck trips, or a truck every four minutes.
The panel also approved a recommendation to change Comprehensive Plan language that now calls for "maximum reduction of negative impacts" from mining.
The new language deletes the word "maximum" and calls for reduction "to the maximum extent practicable." Critics say that invites consideration of acceptable profit levels, which could in turn dilute efforts to regulate mines.
Mining critics said they will seek to add a recommendation that mining be forbidden within 1,000 feet of sensitive waterways. That would place off limits to mining much of the county, including rich gravel fields near the Zekiah Swamp, an extensive wetlands network that runs down the middle of the county.
Havenner said mining allies would oppose such a move. "You might as well just shut the mining industry down," he said.
At the time the task force was formed, mining critics said it was slanted in favor of the industry. They have renewed such assertions, tying at least seven group members to the industry.
"The county commissioners heavily weighted the leadership of that task force to people who directly or indirectly benefit from sand and gravel," said Eugene Pitrof, an attorney for Neighbors of Zekiah Swamp and other groups critical of mining.
Havenner, when asked whether the panel tilted toward the industry, replied, "They picked them. I didn't pick them."
Mayer, the commissioner, said he believed the task force is balanced. He said he is remaining neutral in debate about its direction until the issues it raises come before commissioners.