Charles County may take control over the hiring of consultants whose testimony influences regulators' decisions on sand and gravel mines, some county commissioners suggested Tuesday.
The proposal, aimed at lessening mining companies' influence over expert testimony, arose as commissioners began considering new regulations for mining.
The traditionally important industry is coming under increasing pressure as housing subdivisions spread throughout the county and into areas where the minerals are extracted in what can be noisy, dusty operations.
Commissioners made no decisions Tuesday, which marked their first detailed examination of a task force report on mining that they received in August. They said they expect to hold more public sessions before deciding what rule changes to adopt.
Under current county rules, companies seeking to remove the sand and gravel found just under the topsoil in many areas of the county obtain permission on a case-by-case basis. To support their mining applications, the companies hire experts who offer testimony about the likely impacts of proposed operations on nearby wetlands, local water tables, traffic and other matters.
The experts' statements and reports become a starting point for arguments before the appointed Board of Appeals, which decides whether mines may open or continue operating.
The procedure creates the impression that expert testimony may favor the applicant paying the experts' bill, said Board of Commissioners President Murray D. Levy (D-At Large). He said any hint of possible bias would be removed if the county decided which experts to hire.
"I don't think the process is viewed as being completely fair," Levy said. "We should want to have the most unbiased reporting, and I don't think we're getting that."
If the change were adopted, the county would require applicants to pay a fee to cover the experts' fees, even though the county selects whom to hire, Levy said.
Commissioners Marland Deen (R-Waldorf) and W. Daniel Mayer (R-La Plata) expressed doubts about whether such a change was necessary but stopped short of outright opposition.
Levy, who often directs discussion among the five commissioners, signaled that he wants an expansive discussion of issues surrounding sand and gravel.
Such a debate would include aspects not addressed or not resolved by the task force, which was appointed by the commissioners.
The point is significant in part because mining critics bemoan what they call a history of inaction surrounding conflicts between their industry and homeowners. A previous task force report early in the decade resulted in no significant changes.
However, Levy said, "If we asked the task force to look at something and it hasn't, that issue hasn't gone away."
As an example, he pointed to the task force's recommendation that the county create a method to identify potential mining sites, create an inventory of sand and gravel deposits, and notify nearby property owners of potential mining sites.
The current task force failed to say anything about how those goals should be reached.
"The discussion doesn't end here," Levy said. "If we agree those are three important things, we need to go outside the report and discuss ways to do it."