Carroll officials deny request by factory to store dried sludge

Lehigh Cement plans to burn biosolids as a fuel alternative

April 16, 2005|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

A Carroll County cement factory's plans to store and later burn dried sewage sludge from Baltimore as a fuel alternative hit a legal snag yesterday when county officials ruled against keeping any form of the material.

The German-owned Lehigh Cement Co. in Union Bridge had sought permission to build a 130-foot silo to store as much as 400 tons of pelletized sludge, known as biosolids, that the company would procure from Baltimore's wastewater treatment plants. The factory would be the first in the United States to burn sludge for fuel, although the practice is widespread in Europe.

In a decision issued late yesterday, the county zoning administrator approved construction of the silo but banned storage of sludge -- a prohibition the company says it will try to overcome.

"County code prohibits the storage of sewage sludge in all zoning districts except at public wastewater treatment plants," said Neil Ridgely, zoning administrator. "Lehigh can have its silo, but they can't fill it with sludge. Our code disallows sludge storage in any form."

Peter Lukas, Lehigh plant manager, said he will work with J. Brooks Leahy, the company's attorney, "to develop a strategy."

"We are really astonished at the moment," Lukas said. "That we can't store this product is all new to us."

The company has two options, Leahy said. It can appeal Ridgely's decision to the county Board of Zoning Appeals, basing its argument on the definition of biosolids, he said. Or Lehigh "can move legislatively and ask the commissioners to amend the ordinance," he said.

Commissioner Perry L. Jones Jr., a former mayor of Union Bridge, said the definition of the product should come from the Maryland Department of the Environment.

"MDE should determine what Lehigh can store and burn," Jones said. "We want to work with Lehigh and with the community to protect their interests."

The other two commissioners have withheld support.

"I am not ready to open the doors to this kind of fuel until I know it is safe and will be adequately monitored," said Commissioner Dean L. Minnich. "While science and common sense acknowledge the viability of sludge for fuel, all the experts say it depends on who installs, who operates and who monitors. All those caveats give me a lot of pause."

Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge, who is serving her fourth term, said, "I personally would not OK this. I went through torment years ago getting this ordinance. I know people don't want this kind of operation."

The county enacted the stringent ordinance against storing sludge more than 10 years ago when a Taneytown farmer tried to build a sludge pit. Neighbors protested the odor, the truck traffic and the potential health hazards.

"This is not the same material," Leahy said. "I recall the history of this legislation and why it passed, but this biosolid is a different animal altogether. The commissioners at that time used a sledge hammer, when a ball-peen hammer would have worked."

Judy Smith, a member of Carroll Air, a community environmental group that formed about six months ago to fight what it calls "the constant pollution" from the Lehigh plant, said the lack of information on sludge as a fuel additive is alarming.

"We know coal is not so good, but is human [waste] a good substitute?" said Smith, who runs a horse farm near the plant. "We don't have to be the first to try this."

Frank Maxwell, a Union Bridge resident who has criticized the plant's environmental record, said he was gratified that the county is enforcing its regulations but wary of the appeals process.

"This decision nixes their whole concept," Maxwell said. "I am interested in what Lehigh's work-around solution will be."

Lehigh operators planned to use a combination of coal and sludge to fire the cement kiln. Temperatures would reach 3,000 degrees, a temperature "at which just about anything goes away," said Allen Hershkowitz, senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council and a former adviser to the Environmental Protection Agency.

MDE has recently fined Lehigh and forced it to step up costly plans to decrease dust from the plant.

"If the particulate matter from the plant that we already have is causing problems, then what happens when that matter has sludge?" Smith asked.

Leahy said he will continue to pursue all possible options on behalf of Lehigh.

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