Disorderly 'Davids' Keep Plant In Line

COMMENT

March 21, 1993|By BRIAN SULLAM

Residents for a Healthy Union Bridge Area don't abide by Robert's Rules of Order when they hold meetings. The organization doesn't have officers or a board of directors. Nevertheless, the group seems to be able to conduct its business and get things done.

The group formed in early 1991 after the Maryland Department of the Environment announced that it would hold hearings on Lehigh Portland Cement Co.'s proposal to burn waste carbon at its large Union Bridge plant. About 100 citizens got together, hired a lawyer and challenged Lehigh.

About six months later, the state refused to give Lehigh permission to burn the carbon waste.

The organization has since evolved into a classic grass-roots watchdog. Any activity at Lehigh's furnaces -- unusual sounds, strange smells, large increases in particulate emissions -- results in members' calling one other. They follow up with inquiries to the Department of the Environment and the company.

For years, people living in Union Bridge and the surrounding farms accepted the grime coming out of Lehigh's smokestacks as just part of life. After winning the fight over the carbon filters, citizens felt empowered and realized they had a voice over what Lehigh can burn.

The group is now concerned about Lehigh's proposal to burn tires in its cement kilns.

RHUBA members like to compare themselves to David. They are a resource-poor organization trying to force a Goliath to comply with state environmental laws.

"We are bunch of citizens trying to deal with complicated technical matters," says Julian Stein, a retired Washington public relations executive who lives on a farm outside the town of Union Bridge.

With about 100 dues-paying members, RHUBA tries to schedule regular meetings, but often people are busy with other activities. One evening a month ago, the group assembled at the farm of Kent and Deborah Doxzon just outside of Union Bridge.

Gathered around the Doxzons' oak dining room table are about a dozen people who all seem to be holding their own conversations.

Judy Smith, who lives close by, says she can't stay long because her horse is about to foal. Mr. Doxzon is speaking with Rudolph Medicus and Emil H. White about a conversation he had with an Arizona environmental official. Mr. Stein, who has a puckish sense of humor, is telling a funny story to Mrs. Doxzon, who is trying to get the meeting started.

The main subject on the agenda is the tire burning. Three members of the group were given a three-hour tour of Lehigh's plant the day before, and plant manager David Roush had explained, in painstaking detail, how the tires would be stored, fed into furnaces and burned.

Before addressing the tire-burning issue, however, the group decides to dispose of some routine matters from which even an informal organization can't escape. After about 15 minutes, the preliminary business is finished and the group begins to examine the issues involved with tire-burning.

Lehigh wants to use scrap tires in its fuel mix. Instead of using coal, it will burn thousands of scrap tires weekly. That will also reduce the millions of tires that get stockpiled or discarded in Maryland.

The company has said tires burn cleaner than coal and will make the plant more competitive with other cement plants.

The consensus of the group is that Lehigh should be able to burn tires so long as it meets emission standards. It is also clear that the members are skeptical that Lehigh will be able to meet those standards.

RHUBA's members have been in contact with officials in Pima County, Arizona and Stanislaus County, Calif., where other tire incinerators operate.

"We heard from Kepplinger [Edward Kepplinger is a Washington environment consultant who specializes in providing advice to citizens groups], and he told us that tire burning isn't noxious if it is done properly," Mr. Doxzon says.

Mr. Doxzon received a copy of the permit issued to Modesto Energy Co. in Stanislaus County and would like RHUBA to use it as a guide for evaluating Lehigh's effort. He also passes around a list of six critical measures that Lehigh should achieve during its test burn before it is given permission to add tires to its regular fuel mix.

Mr. Medicus, a biomedical researcher, says RHUBA should focus its attention on the levels of oxygen and carbon monoxide in the exhaust. If the levels of oxygen are between 3 and 5 percent and the carbon monoxide levels are low, then the fuel is burning cleanly, he says.

Several people agree that there ought to be further discussions with Mr. Kepplinger.

Everyone agrees that more research needs to be done and that they have to meet again. They also agree that they are not opposed to Lehigh's efforts to burn tires.

"We look like spoilers if we oppose everything," Mr. Doxzon tells the others.

Because Lehigh is the major employer in Union Bridge, RHUBA's zealous efforts are not always appreciated by their neighbors. Some people in town think the group's ultimate goal is to close down Lehigh. RHUBA members deny that.

"It has never been our intention to shut Lehigh down," Mrs. Doxzon says. "We are just trying to make them behave and meet established emission standards."

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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