UNION BRIDGE — — For nearly a century, Carroll County's smallest town has supplied stone to the massive Lehigh Cement Co. plant that employs many in the community. But the company finds itself at a crossroads — with the quarry nearly depleted, it is eyeing a new supply from a limestone-rich mine that it owns in another town.
The company's plan: Construct a 4.5-mile conveyor system that would run under roads, rails and streams — and over acres of protected farmland between the quarry and the plant in Union Bridge.
Lehigh knows that the project will be extremely costly, but says such a system is the best way to keep the plant running without severe disruption to life in the town of about 1,100 and neighboring New Windsor. But some criticize Lehigh's environmental record, and are concerned about the prospect of construction on agriculturally preserved land.
"There should be a high standard for land in these preservation programs," said Dan Strickler, a Westminster resident. "This is not a utility company that is disturbing land. This project could set a bad precedent as far as preservation."
The plant needs a steady supply of stone — about 12,000 tons daily now — if it is to stay in operation. It has rejected trucking the stone, given the adverse effect of hundreds of cumbersome vehicles on the two small towns. Lehigh could also build a rail spur from an existing track, but would prefer a conveyor.
The project would cost tens of millions of dollars, require permits from federal, state and county agencies, and numerous public hearings. It would take about two years to build.
Lehigh officials have pledged to keep the process open to the public and on Wednesday were scheduled to review the preliminary plans at a workshop for area residents.
"New Windsor has a limestone source that could provide stone for 80 years into the future," said Kent D. Martin, plant manager. "A rich mine that can provide limestone for decades justifies the cost of a transfer system."
Lehigh is working with a farm owner in an effort to remove the preservation designation on a portion of the property and to add several contiguous acres into preservation, almost in a 2-to-1 swap, company officials said.
Residents are concerned about the noise, traffic and pollution inherent in the rail or trucking options.
Daniel Ely, a New Windsor resident, is already organizing opposition to a rail spur, which he said would cross wetlands and a stream. He also criticizes Lehigh's environmental record, noting a 10-fold spike in mercury emissions over the course of one year in 2007. The company has since reduced emissions from that high mark by more than half.
Ely said he might favor the conveyor system, provided it doesn't harm waterways.
"New Windsor sits in a flood plain and I want its interests protected," he said. "I want all their answers in writing."
Lehigh, part of the international Heidelberg Cement Group, employs about 170 at the plant, more than half from Union Bridge and New Windsor.
Judy Smith, a longtime neighbor of the Lehigh plant, said a conveyor is much more palatable than more trucks or trains, but she wants more details.
"We can't tolerate more trucks on these roads," she said. "The trains make so much noise, sounding that whistle four times at every crossing. I would much rather a conveyor."
County Commissioner Richard Rothschild, whose district includes both towns, said Lehigh has long owned the New Windsor quarry and the surrounding acreage, and has secured the appropriate zoning to conduct a mining operation.
"No one wants a mining operation in their backyard, but this one is in our backyard," he said. "I am glad it's Lehigh and that they are going the extra mile to mitigate the impact on the environment and the viewscapes."
About 40 percent of the conveyor would be underground, including where it would cross roads, railroad tracks and four small streams in its path. The remaining above-ground structure — about 16 feet high and 15 feet wide — would be covered, probably in plastic or aluminum, a feature designed to cut down on noise and air pollution.
"You will be able to put your ear next to it and hear how quiet it is," said Kurt W. Deery, Lehigh's environmental engineer.
The next step in what will be a lengthy process is permit applications, many of which will be filed with the appropriate agencies by the end of this month. The company will also spend $1.3 million on a feasibility study to determine the costs of the conveyor and to nail down logistical issues.
Lehigh has stressed its preference for a conveyor, but underscores the need to plan should that option fail.
"We have about nine years of reserves left," Martin said. "We can't get to the 20-yard line and miss. We have to move forward with two options, just in case our first option fails."
The company paid nearly $700,000, 10 times the appraised value, for seven acres of town land to build a rail spur from an existing track to the plant. If no spur is needed, the company will allow the town to use the land, now ball fields, in perpetuity.