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In his finest story-telling style, Carroll Del. Richard N. Dixon prefaced his argument for increasing protections against mining damages with a tale about getting into movies for free as a boy in the 1940s.

A flimsy connection? Let Dixon explain. You see, a boy gained status if he was at the movies on Saturday night in 1940s Carroll, and Dixon always was there because his father was the projectionist.

From those screenings, Dixon remembers well the old Hopalong Cassidy westerns, and particularly one line when Hopalong and his sidekick would refer to the bad guys as those "lowdown, no-good varmints."

Here's the relevant part: Dixon feels the same about mining officials as Hopalong did about his adversaries. That's why the Carroll Democrat says he has returned with a bill to modify legislation he pushedthrough with compromises last year.

Conspicuously absent from thehearing yesterday before the House Environmental Matters Committee were mining industry officials, who have waged vigorous campaigns against similar legislation sponsored by Carroll delegates the past four years.

This year's bill would presume mining companies liable for sinkhole damages within a scientifically determined area around theirquarries, and would require them to pay affected property owners or repair the land. A sinkhole is the sudden subsidence of land that canoccur naturally in certain terrains or can be caused by extracting ground water, which takes place in limestone mining.

Under the bill, mining companies would have to prove they were not responsible by "clear and convincing evidence" -- the highest legal standard of proof-- to avoid liability. Currently, the state Department of Natural Resources must determine the cause of sinkholes and provide mining companies an opportunity to state their case before any relief could be granted to property owners.

A bill sponsored by Dixon was enacted last year that applied those tough standards to mining industries for water supply damages within the zone. The bill was amended in the Senate to apply lesser standards to sinkholes to appease the mining industry and get the legislation enacted.

Dixon was angered when the Maryland Aggregates Association Inc., saying the law was unconstitutional, sued the state when the bill took effect. The association president and its top lobbyist had written Dixon, saying they would supportthe bill with amendments.

The state's motion to dismiss the suit will be heard Feb. 21 in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court.

The industry has argued that sinkholes can't be definitively linked to mining and it is unfair to presume quarry companies guilty.

The 1992 proposed bill and the contested law apply only in Baltimore, Carroll, Frederick and Washington counties, where limestone mining takes place.

Dixon has sponsored mining legislation since 1988. Three mining companies have plans to locate or expand in Wakefield Valley, where development has en

croached on quarry operations.

Del. Virginia M. Thomas, D-Howard, Prince George's, the committee vice chairwoman, questioned whether Carroll County prohibits development near mining areas where public water and sewer aren't available.

"Counties havean obligation to deal with some of these problems through land use, and they're failing to do that," she said.

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