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Home » Issue Areas » Lehigh and Quarrying » Newspaper Articles » 2009
Union Bridge, New Windsor grapple with cement company's plan for 4.5-mile conveyor
May 3, 2009
If the 465-foot Lehigh Heidelberg Cement tower were in downtown Baltimore, it would be the fifth-tallest high- rise, an unassuming structure in a busy skyline. But the structure dominates Union Bridge, a pastoral Carroll County town of just over a thousand people that's known for its quaint antique stores.
"At night, they light the tower up like Cape Canaveral," said Union Bridge Mayor Bret Grossnickle. "Opinions vary on whether it's an eyesore. It's been around so long that people are used to it."
The town and the plant have managed to co-exist, with a few contentious moments along the way, for nearly 100 years. But those relations have been strained by reports of the plant's mercury emissions - an issue the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is trying to address with new industrywide regulations. And now they might be tested again as Lehigh proposes to build a nearly five-mile transportation route to carry limestone from a quarry in neighboring New Windsor to the Union Bridge processing plant.
In some ways, the relationship between Lehigh and the town is rare. Although ownership has changed several times since opening in 1910, Lehigh has roots in the community as deep as that of many residents. Plant manager Kent Martin says about 40 percent of Lehigh employees reside in Union Bridge (pop. 1,089) or New Windsor (pop. 1,350). Lehigh subsidizes the Union Bridge fire department and allows the department to use its facility for training exercises. It conducts plant tours by the busload and holds community meetings.
"We've been here for a long time, and we will continue to be here for a long, long time, but the proximity to Union Bridge is a challenge," said Martin, who lives in Westminster. "I've traveled to hundreds of cement plants around the world, and this is one of the closest proximity that I've seen to a town for a cement plant.
"But one of the things that is unique in being in a rural area like this is that there's a lot of people here who have connection to the Union Bridge facility. There are a lot of people who have ownership to the plant in sons, fathers and family members who work here."
Lehigh officials say its limestone reserves in Union Bridge, situated in the heart of the Piedmont Plateau, may run out in about 12 years, so mining from the New Windsor quarry is key. Among proposals under consideration is building an overland conveyor. The company, which owns about 50 percent of the proposed conveyor path, anticipates that 1.7 miles of it will be put underground. Many area residents want the entire thing underground.
"We have talked a lot to the community, to the government officials. We've listened to concerns and we're trying to incorporate those concerns into the designs of the different options we're looking at," said Martin, noting that construction is probably about five years away.
Talk of the conveyor comes as local residents have been grappling with an EPA report suggesting Lehigh released 376 pounds of mercury into the air in 2007 - 10 times as much as the previous year. Lehigh officials say the higher number was the result of more precise testing, not any drastic change in plant emissions.
Last month, the EPA proposed requiring cement plants, which are among the nation's leading air polluters, to reduce emissions of mercury and other contaminants by more than 80 percent by 2013. The regulations are the first seeking to govern what is discharged when limestone, clay and other materials are cooked into the main ingredient in concrete. The proposal would require plants such as Lehigh's - the nation's fifth-largest Portland cement plant - to install equipment or make other changes to limit release of toxic substances.
"As far as pros and cons are concerned, the pros are that they employ people and they contribute to the area financially," said Peter Pearre of Union Bridge. "But like any major industry, there is a price to pay in terms of finding out about the mercury. They seem to have a very convoluted story from one year to the next, and the more they're being monitored by the government, the better."
Such issues are not uncommon between industrial complexes and townspeople fiercely protective about what gets placed in their backyard. Some community residents were suspicious of the plant long before its current owner, Germany-based Heidelberg, purchased it in 1977. Their trepidation, they say, is borne out of caustic attitudes from previous owners.
"Some of the management that came in here lately has honestly been more reasonable to deal with than what we had before," said George Maloney, a founding member and board chair of the 300-member New Windsor Community Action Project, a group formed in 1987 to address concerns with the plant.
"Back years ago, there were pitched battles; I've seen people crying in meetings," he added. "I've seen people that upset. They didn't want all the dirt and the pollution and all the commotion that is caused by the mining industry."
Nowadays, NEWCAP members say, the two sides have a more amicable relationship, and in recent years, Lehigh has changed many of its procedures in response to community concerns. For example, residents complained that many did not hear the siren signaling an impending quarry blast; Lehigh now calls residents at home to notify them of blasts.
"It's a mixed blessing," said Dan Strickler, NEWCAP president. "They give the community industry and provide cement, which the country needs for building structures.
"You can't just say, 'Get rid of it.' You have to compromise. We hold meetings and they invite us to meetings. They don't jump at all of our suggestions, but we do have an exchange of information."
Both sides are hoping for the same result with the proposed conveyor. Lehigh recently took several local groups to Nazareth, Pa., to explore a facility that is similar to the conveyor it is proposing. Maloney said one suggestion was placing the entire conveyor underground, then covering it with an area for cattle to graze. He said the group was told such an approach was not feasible.
One of the best things to come out of communicating with Lehigh, he said, is dispelling inaccurate rumors.
"You get a lot of crazy rumors, people saying, 'They're going to come through Joe's house,' and that kind of stuff," Maloney said. "If you have a group like NEWCAP, people get a pretty good idea of what's going on."
Still, there are some views Lehigh cannot do much about - namely, those of the tower. While some stargazers complain that it interferes with the night sky, most folks take its hulking presence in stride.
"People come here and ask, 'What in God's name is that behind your house?' " said Cindy Franz of Union Bridge. "We tell them, 'Oh, we do space shuttle launches from here.' "