UNION BRIDGE -- When the dust falls on this Carroll Count town from the Lehigh Portland Cement Co., some people call it "gold dust," illustrating the town's financial dependence on its largest employer.
Now, though, the cement manufacturer that has enjoyed a lofty status here for almost 70 years finds itself the target of angry residents, who worry that its plans to burn industrial waste for fuel may turn the gold dust into a toxic nightmare.
Lehigh Portland is seeking permission from the state to burn "non-hazardous" waste materials from a New Jersey chemical plant that has been designated for cleanup by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund.
If its wins approval, it will be the first cement plant in the state to make use of the controversial practice of burning industrial waste for fuel and one of only about 25 in the nation.
The proposal has awakened the citizenry of Union Bridge, a community of about 900 people that sits on the border of Carroll and Frederick counties. Many here have lived for years by the maxim that you don't bite the hand that feeds you. Lehigh Portland employs about 200 people, many from the town.
This time, their fear for their health has outweighed concern for their pocketbooks.
"There has been tremendous concern for some time about Lehigh Portland because they don't control their dust," said Julian Stein, aUnion Bridge resident. "With that history, the town has become terrified because they want to know what is going to be trucked in and burned here."
What Lehigh Portland says it will be burning is carbon waste, a byproduct of treating industrial wastewater from the manufacture of plastic and dye at a plant in New Jersey owned by Ciba-Geigy, a Switzerland chemical corporation.
"This material is primarily carbon, with some lime in it," said David H. Roush, manager of the Union Bridge cement plant. "It's from a plastics and dye plant, and this is the material they wind up with as a byproduct of the wastewater treatment."
But many of the more than 100 residents who recently came to two public hearings on the permit do not believe that the material Lehigh Portland will be burning is non-hazardous. This distrust is partly a result of the source of the materials, Ciba-Geigy, which has a history of pollution problems.
The contents of a landfill at its New Jersey plant were found to have contaminated the aquifer beneath the plant. The ground water from the site flows toward the Toms River, under a residential area in Dover Township. The landfill area was declared a Superfund site in 1985, and in 1987 tests showed that 12 irrigation wells had been contaminated.
"My concern is that I believe that the company bringing the stuff here is misrepresenting themselves," said Kent H. Doxzon, who lives on the outskirts of Union Bridge.
He said the company no longer manufactured dyes and was closingthe plastics plant. Residents believe the material brought Lehigh Portland will be waste from the cleanup of the contaminated landfill, he said.
"What they are bringing us are their toxins," Mr. Doxzon said.
Ciba-Geigy officials could not be reached for comment on their operations at the New Jersey plant, although Lehigh Portland said the company still was making both dyes and plastics.
Maryland Department of the Environment officials have taken the concerns of the residents seriously enough to have sent a team up to the New Jersey plant last week to sample what would be burned at the Union Bridge plant.
"We'll get it analyzed and see if it is the same stuff that Lehigh has, been telling us and whether or not there should be cause for alarm," said George P. Ferrari, director of Air Management Administration.
Carroll County's Board of Commissioners have publicly opposed the permit, as have some town officials. Residents have said that the state approves the permit, it should monitor emissions around the clock.
"We want to make sure that the people up there recognize that this is not a railroad job," Mr. Ferrari said. "We have not made up our minds to grant the permit. A lot depends on what these samples produce."
Lehigh Portland, which already has a permit to burn waste oil as fuel and is involved in a dispute with state officials over lead levels in those emissions, will not bring any materials into the plant for burning other than those allowed under a permit, Mr. Roush said.
"We intend to sample and test each truck as it comes here so that we can be made aware of any changes that might occur," he said. "If there is a change, we could see it and react to it.
"People may have a concern about this company [Ciba-Geigy], but the permit is not for them, it's for Lehigh Portland," Mr. Roush said. "It's our name and reputation on the line, and we will be carefully monitoring the material."
Cement plants are being used to burn both non-hazardous and hazardous wastes because of the heat used during the manufacturing process. The kiln that burns the powder from the raw material used to make cement reaches a temperature of more than 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
The material is exposed to that heat for a relatively long time, Mr. Roush said, compared with exposure in an incinerator -- usually twice the amount of time, from two seconds in an incinerator to anywhere between three to five seconds in a cement kiln.
"All of that means that natural conditions occur for even the most stable organic compounds to be fully burned up," Mr. Roush said.
The waste will be mixed in with the plant's normal fuel substance, pulverized coal. The ash left over from the process becomes part of the finished product of cement, he said. The practice has been a financial boon for cement manufacturers because they reduce their fuel costs and get paid for disposing of the industrial waste.
Environmentalists, though, say it is a practice that spells disaster for people living near cement plants. In other communities nationwide where cement plants have burned industrial wastes, residents have mounted strong efforts opposing the practice with the help of the environmental group Greenpeace.
Most of those battles have been over burning hazardous materials, such as solvents, inks and cosmetics.
Greenpeace alleges that the chlorinated wastes from such hazardous materials could result in emissions of dioxin, a toxic compound.
The burning of any industrial wastes, including non-hazardous materials, for fuel creates a health risk from emissions, said Pat Costner, research director of Greenpeace's toxics campaign.
"Any time you start burning mixed organic chemicals of any kind, you can anticipate seeing the formation of a product of incomplete combustion," she said.
Residents have learned that Lehigh Portland officials have filed a second application for a permit -- this one to burn hazardous materials, such as solvents that are classified hazardous because of their flammability.
That application is in the early stages of review, said Alvin L. Bolles, administrator of Maryland's hazardous waste program.
His department is reviewing federal regulations recently issued to address concerns over the burning of hazardous materials in cement kilns and other industrial furnaces.
Facilities had been using a loophole that allowed the burning of hazardous waste for energy.