When it comes to expanding its New Windsor quarry operation, Lehigh Cement Co. is looking years down the road.
But it gave a preview Aug. 8 of its plan to transport millions of tons of stone between the quarry and its processing plant in Union Bridge about 4 1/2 miles away.
Officials from the company provided the Carroll County Planning and Zoning Commission members and New Windsor residents with a bus tour of the proposed expansion site, which will encompass about 635 acres between Route 31 and Old New Windsor Road, just southeast of New Windsor.
The expansion will be on land that Lehigh purchased in the 1950s, when it was already looking ahead to an eventual expansion.
The bus tour was followed by a two-hour-long informational meeting on the expansion and its most controversial component — a proposed 4.4-mile-long conveyor that Lehigh hopes to build to move some 12,000 tons of stone a day from the quarry and to the plant.
During the presentation, Lehigh executives and consultants used maps, charts and aerial photos to provide details and projections on the proposal to planning officials and the 40 or so area residents who attended the evening meeting in New Windsor's community hall.
The tour and presentation are the most recent steps in Lehigh's already four-year-long effort at educating the public about what the company has planned for the future, and why.
The multi-layered process still requires a host of county, state and federal permits and approvals in order to move forward.
"Four years ago we began floating the plan out in community meetings, and we have been modifying it and fine-tuning it ever since to arrive at the present stage," said Kent Martin, manager of Lehigh's Union Bridge plant, during the presentation.
For decades, the company's Union Bridge plant and quarry has been an economic mainstay for western Carroll County. But in about eight years, Lehigh's current quarry in Union Bridge will play out. After that, the New Windsor quarry will need to feed the plant about 12,000 tons a day for its average operations.
"This is the future life line to the plant," said one Lehigh engineering consultant. "If it doesn't run, the plant doesn't run."
Lehigh's engineers have determined the New Windsor quarry, when expanded, will yield enough limestone to keep the New Windsor plant running for another 80 years.
Officials estimate it will take two or three years to complete the complex approval and permitting process. After that, the actual construction of the conveyor, if it is approved, will take another 18 to 24 months.
The conveyor is the aspect of the plan that is trickiest — and initially raised the most public concern. Lehigh officials say it's the best option for transporting stone across 4.4 miles of farmland and under the highways and streams between New Windsor and Union Bridge with the least amount of noise, dust, traffic and disruption.
The two other options under consideration are truck or train — although truck has been largely ruled out at this point
"Nobody wants to see trucks" running back and forth constantly between the quarry and the plant, Martin said, citing the noise, dust and road damage that would inevitably result. "That would be the worst, worst case scenario."
Martin told the planning board and residents that a preliminary plan for the expansion has already been submitted to the county, but not for the conveyor, since it faces challenges that must first be cleared.
No one has built such a conveyor in Carroll County, and county codes don't provide any guidelines or clarity on how one could built on land that is zoned for agriculture or under an agricultural preservation easement.
However, Lehigh officials said the conveyor will be built far enough underground (from 10 to 60 feet, depending on the location) that once it is completed, ongoing farming activities will not be affected.
Lehigh has already held several bus trips so local residents could see a similar conveyor that's been in operation for some time near Nazareth, Pa. That conveyor creates a noise level that in terms of decibels is no louder than a normal human conversation, officials said. Because it will either be underground or under a plastic or metal cover, depending on the location and topography, the proposed conveyor would be more or less invisible.
Martin said Lehigh is also applying for all the permits and approvals for constructing a railroad spur to connect the New Windsor quarry to the Maryland Midland Railway short line that runs from New Windsor to Union Bridge. — but that's a backup plan in the event that the conveyor is ultimately not approved, he said.
Members of the planning commission peppered Lehigh with questions about the impact the expansion will have on water well levels — and were told the impact would be very little. They also questioned the length of time that roads such as Old New Windsor Road will have to be closed during construction of the conveyor.
When the meeting was open for public comment, only two residents posed questions and voiced concerns about noise from blasting at the quarry and how the expansion would affect the vistas or sightlines from their homes.
Martin said the blasting would, in the future, be regulated and contained to minimize the noise and vibration. He also said Lehigh would provide "pre-blast surveys" for any residents who request them for their properties.
As far as sightlines, Lehigh also offered to provide any residents who request them with computerized renderings of how the expansion would affect the views from their homes.