The Lehigh Portland Cement Co. has been the lifeblood of Union Bridge, providing jobs for generations of families and assisting the town in emergencies.
Now, a vocal group of residents -- many new to thearea and not tied to the company -- is worried Lehigh could endangertheir health and quality of life.
Lehigh wants to burn wastes as fuel, which opponents say could poison the environment. The company says it won't -- burning the waste will recycle it, save the company money and give workers more job security.
It's a national issue being debated across the country as cement plants discover wastes are good fuel sources. Because of citizens' heightened awareness about the environment, many companies are finding it difficult to get state and community approval to burn wastes.
Lehigh has found itself in that quandary. As the sixth-largest cement producer in the United States, it has burned hazardous wastes at its plant in New York and wants to burn a carbon waste in Union Bridge.
Herb W. Weller, who has worked at Lehigh for 26 of the 29 years he's lived in Union Bridge, said the company, with its strong tiesto the community, would not do anything dangerous.
"We're not interested in damaging our employees, our environment or our town; it's just that simple," he said.
Burning alternative fuels is importantfor the company, Plant Manager David H. Roush said.
"In the long run, if we are prevented from burning alternative fuels, while cementcompanies that are competing against us do it, we'll become uncompetitive," Roush said, adding that U.S. cement companies also must compete with foreign companies that have lower labor and fuel costs.
"It becomes a spiral thing. You make less money, then you make no money, then you lose money. And once you start losing money, you don't have any money to invest in improving the plant."
Some of the town's 966 residents have organized to oppose the burning, and the state hassaid it wants Lehigh to better control its dust emissions before burning alternative fuels. In June, the state denied Lehigh permission to burn a carbon waste, which wasn't classified as hazardous; Lehigh has appealed.
In April, the state proposed a $20,000 fine against Lehigh for illegal dust emissions in February and March. Earlier this year, it proposed a $2,000 fine against the company for accepting waste oil with excessive lead.
Lehigh has challenged both fines; the Maryland Department of the Environment has not made a final decision on either appeal.
Lehigh's primary fuel is coal, but the company also has burned about 4.5 percent waste oil since 1986. The oil is notclassified as hazardous. The company currently is burning only coal and waste oil. It had burned wood chips, but the supply ran out last November, Roush said.
If Lehigh is allowed to burn carbon or otherwastes, Roush said the company will take precautions to ensure the materials are received, stored and burned properly.
"We're not interested in burning stuff that will create hazards," he said. "The people in this plant are closer to it than anybody, for crying out loud."
Dust has been a problem over the years in Union Bridge, but residents who have depended on Lehigh for their livelihood have called thestuff that lights on their cars and bureau shelves "gold dust."
"Life can't be perfect," said Vivian Nusbaum, a former town councilwoman who's married to a Lehigh retiree. "Lehigh has been good to us over the years.
"If they didn't have Lehigh here, what would the townbe? It's given jobs to so many people."
Union Bridge has been a company town since Lehigh bought the plant in 1925. Lehigh has had a reputation as a solid employer that provided well-paying jobs with good benefits.
Employees were expected to work hard -- and get dirty -- but they were compensated fairly for it, said Peter W. Neumann, who has worked at the plant for 27 years.
Relations between hourly employees and management at Lehigh plants around the country have beenstrained since workers went on a 3 1/2-week strike in 1984, Roush said. But Union Bridge remains Lehigh's most productive plant.
"It'sa testimony to the quality of the workers," the Westminster residentsaid. "They're angry in some cases and frustrated about what's been going on, but yet they still have the personal pride of workmanship.
"It goes back to the small town, closely related social and working nature of these people. A lot of these people come off of farms. They come to work here knowing what hard work is and knowing that you have to work hard to get by."
The plant produces about 1 million tons of cement a year from limestone and shale it digs out of a quarry adjacent to the plant. The company plans to open a new quarry just south of New Windsor to keep the flow of rock coming after the Union Bridge pit is depleted in about 17 years.