Something in the air: Is it good for county?


THE NO-GROWTHERS and the go-growthers seem to agree that Carroll County needs to expand its industrial base. Both to ease the burden of residential taxes on the county budget and to provide more local employment opportunities.

With only 12 percent of the county's tax base in commercial/industrial property, Carroll trails other Maryland metropolitan counties. And as most people are aware, a new business typically pays more in taxes than it demands in services, the direct opposite of new residents.

So when one of the county's oldest industrial employers plans a $180 million expansion project, cutting its energy consumption in half and installing state-of-the-art technology, it is surely cause for celebration by everyone. Right?

Not necessarily. There was as much questioning of the environmental and health consequences as resounding applause last month when Lehigh Portland Cement Co. publicly discussed plans for renovations and new equipment at its Union Bridge plant.

It is the first major expansion for the company, which has been in Carroll County since 1910, one that assures its viability well into the next century. Cement output will increase by 50 percent to 1.5 million tons a year.

But there's no such thing as a free salad bar, free from cost and calories, as an increasingly skeptical public well knows.

The planned expansion, which is expected to begin this year for completion in 1999, will emit more smog-producing chemicals into the air. Probably three times as much of these volatile organic compounds (VOC) as the existing facility, company officials told the meeting held by the state Department of the Environment.

Lehigh's assurance

Not to worry, Lehigh said. We're buying air pollution credits from other companies that have reduced their emissions by more than the legally required limit. That pollution reduction (from better control technology or decreased activity) gives them extra credits to sell to plants that can't cut back or need to increase their pollution output.

In the same manner, Lehigh expects to cut back its emissions of nitrogen oxides (another smog chemical) with the new equipment, and will turn around and sell these credits to another firm that needs to exceed its legal air pollution limits.

If that sounds like a win-win situation for industry, it did not totally convince the cement plant's neighbors.

If you increase some smog pollutants with one hand, and you reduce other contaminants with the other hand, does it hurt or help the quality of the air we breathe? Does cleaner air somewhere else mean we will breathe unhealthy air here?

Experts say that emissions trading is an efficient way to achieve air quality, within reason, because air pollution isn't simply caused by sources in the immediate area; the airshed is much larger, the chemistry of smog much more complex.

Computer models figure out what each identified industrial source of pollutants is allowed to emit. Taken together, scientists calculate what the potential impact will be on air quality in a defined region, such as metro Baltimore. (You have to buy pollution credits and sell within a specified area.)

Furthermore, as Marylanders discovered this past year, the weather and particularly the amount of sunshine plays a key role in determining smog levels. Favorable climatic conditions and winds helped to depress the number of unhealthy smog days.

But more polluting chemicals in the air increase the chances of forming ozone-smog, even if the weather is unpredictable. So automobiles and industries are required to reduce emissions.

By improving emission controls and by acquiring pollution credits, Lehigh's modernization plan would seem to make for better air quality in the area.

The improvements in air quality at the plant over the years are quite visible to Union Bridge Mayor Perry L. Jones, who remembers when dust fallout from the plant was so thick that residents had to wash their car windshields with vinegar every morning. With the renovations, dust fallout will be largely eliminated.

Expansion of plant production will increase truck traffic. But a new road alignment will divert trucks from the town's center, alleviating traffic, noise and exhaust nuisances.

What the new Lehigh facility won't do is increase jobs. In fact, the 200 current jobs may be reduced slightly by attrition, with the new technological efficiencies.

That's another modern fact of industrial development: More expensive technology and bigger buildings don't necessarily mean more employment. Random House's new $8 million, seven-story warehouse will add but five employees to the 1,100-plus already working at the publisher's Westminster distribution center, for example.

You can't have everything. But the overall economic benefit to Union Bridge and Carroll County from the Lehigh expansion should be considerable. That's not something that's still up in the air.

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

Pub Date: 4/06/97

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