Charles County commissioners received recommendations on Monday from a task force that examined the sand and gravel industry, which faces increasing criticism as subdivisions advance into rural areas where the minerals are extracted from noisy, dusty mines.
Commissioners gave little indication what changes they might adopt in regulations affecting the industry, long a major local employer but one diminishing in importance as the county's economy grows.
But commissioners promised action and said they may consider changes not proposed by the task force, which critics asserted was dominated by the sand and gravel industry.
"It's very clear we're going to do something," Board of Commissioners President Murray D. Levy (D-At Large) told a crowd of about 50 people who came to the commissioners' meeting room in La Plata on Monday evening to watch as the task force presented its findings.
The 13-member panel was appointed by commissioners last year after public outcry over two proposals, since withdrawn, to mine large tracts near suburban-style housing.
Sand and gravel deposits underlie much of Charles County. Companies excavate the topsoil and scoop up the mineral-bearing layer underneath. The material is trucked to industrial plants where it is washed and sorted. The finished product goes into concrete and construction materials.
Critics say noise and dust from mines intrude on homeowners and that mine-generated truck traffic is unsafe and damages roads. Industry advocates say disruptions from mining are temporary, and that critics have failed to demonstrate traffic safety problems or excessive road wear.
In its report to the commissioners, the task force:
* Calls for changing language in the county's comprehensive plan, which now calls for "maximum reduction of the negative impacts" of mining. The task force voted to delete the word "maximum" and to add the qualifying phrase, "to the maximum extent practicable."
* Recommends eliminating a requirement for traffic studies, which examine road capacity, for mines that generate fewer than 140 truck trips a day.
* Calls for a $200-an-acre fee for mines. It declined to adopt an extraction tax based on the amount of material mined from a site.
* Says mining companies should be required to maintain planted buffers to prevent sediment- and nutrient-laden surface water from running off into streams, where it can choke off aquatic life. The mined tracts often are denuded, and such conditions can produce abundant runoff.
* Says the companies should monitor downstream conditions.
* Calls for an explicit recognition in the comprehensive plan of a right to mine.
The task force rejected a proposal for establishing so-called mining preservation districts, where landowners would be assured of a right to mine sand and gravel. Advocates of the proposal abandoned it when legal advisers said it would be difficult to implement.
The task force asked commissioners to find a way to identify mineral deposits and notify nearby property owners that the deposits might be mined in the future. Members hope such notification can reduce the number of conflicts that arise when homeowners discover neighboring land is to be mined.
Mining critics were quick to register their dismay with the task force report, saying it failed to propose new measures to protect homeowners and in places actually weakened such provisions.
"Why must citizens consistently fight to protect our neighborhoods, our property values, our environment?" said Patricia Murray, a task force member who disavowed many of its findings.
Murray is a member of Neighbors of Zekiah Swamp Inc., a group formed to combat a mine proposed for the Dentsville area in eastern Charles County.
The group's attorney, Eugene E. Pitrof, said the report lacks recommendations to limit dust or noise and ignores evidence of environmental damage from mining.
Mining advocates said the report represented a compromise.
"There's never going to be pure agreement," said Robert Stahl, a task force member and former officer for the Chaney group of companies, a leading regional sand and gravel mining company. "What you have here is a sound document that does make substantive change."
Stahl pointed to a task force recommendation that companies fund a hydrological study if they propose to excavate below the top of the local water table, and to the panel's proposed limits on applying sewage sludge, which is used to fertilize mined land.
Another task force member, Hughesville farmer Steven Walter, called mining part of a rural way of life under threat from expanding suburbs.
"One of these days you'll all be living in the city, and there won't be any country because you won't let anybody do the things they want to do," Walter said.
Monday's report is the latest in a long debate that has evaded resolution. A previous county task force could reach no consensus when it examined the industry a decade ago. Its report spurred no significant changes in county procedures.
Mining critics said they feared similar inaction would follow the task force report given at Monday's meeting. Levy said commissioners may extend the life of the task force so it could monitor the county's response.
The task force report said the county's sand and gravel industry employs 331 people--or roughly 1 percent of county jobs.
The average salary within the industry is $35,255, 39 percent higher than the average salary for all jobs in the county, the task force said.