The Lehigh Portland Cement Co. fired its towering new kiln for the first time about two weeks ago and so far, reviews of the impact on the surrounding communities of Union Bridge and New Windsor have been mixed.
Residents and officials in Union Bridge seem pleased that the expanded plant creates less dust and noise than the old plant. But residents on the other side of the plant say it's too loud and casts a powerful glare at night that makes stargazing impossible.
Lehigh began its $268 million expansion in 1999. Once the new plant is running at full capacity next year, it will produce twice as much cement as the old plant with less environmental impact.
The kiln's early days have run about as smoothly as expected, said Lehigh plant manager Dave Roush. The start-up process has its frustrations, he said, because a small glitch can stall the entire operation for an afternoon or longer.
The process of testing and making adjustments at the new plant will extend well into next year, Roush said. But what area residents see, hear and smell now closely approximates what they will see, hear and smell when the plant is operating at full power, he said.
In a meeting with the Carroll County commissioners Thursday, Union Bridge Mayor Perry L. Jones Jr. described the new plant as a major improvement over the old. He could hardly hear the new plant as it revved up for production, he said, and the dust that used to coat cars throughout town seems to have disappeared almost entirely.
But Roush encountered a less-than-enthusiastic audience at a meeting the previous week of the New Windsor Community Action Project, a group of residents who have been meeting for 14 years to discuss community issues and advocate for change when they see fit.
"As few as seven or eight months ago, we had a real pastoral and serene view from [nearby] Linwood, but now, forget about seeing a sunset," said resident John Carr.
Carr and several other residents pointed to the lights that shine 24 hours a day on the plant's main tower as the chief view-killers. They asked Roush if the lights need to be on all the time. He said they did. Then they asked if he knew of a shielding device that would keep the light from shining out. He said he didn't but would look into finding one.
That was about the only concession the group drew from him.
They also asked if the current industrial hum from the plant would lessen. It will not, Roush said. "There is a hum and it's coming from a different place than it did with the old plant. So that may be why you're perceiving it where you didn't before."
Some residents made heated comments about the steady truck traffic to and from the plant.
"New Windsor gets all the truck traffic and what does it get in return? Nothing," said Norman Condon, who lives between Westminster and New Windsor.
Roush said the plant has tried to avoid having a negative impact on the towns but said the company has little control over truck noise or congestion.