STOPPING WORK on the $260 million expansion of Lehigh Portland Cement Co.'s plant in Union Bridge is an unusual step that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency shouldn't have had to take.
But the agency did so last week because it believes that Lehigh should install better equipment to reduce its air pollution. EPA overruled the state of Maryland, which approved a permit after nearly three years of talks with the company, and after the state Department of Environment refused to include EPA proposals in the permit.
On one level, this may be a technical dispute between EPA and the state: Is the level of computer-projected pollutants sufficient to consider installing "best available technology"?
Were all options that could reduce emissions evaluated?
But EPA is also sending a warning, flexing its authority to block state-delegated air quality permits. The agency says states are ignoring best available technology in approving new pollution-source facilities.
Three years ago, Gov. Parris N. Glendening, under attack as being unresponsive to business, pointed to Lehigh's project as a beneficiary of his state regulatory reform. Agencies were to streamline permit approvals and work more closely with business applicants.
EPA says available technology can reduce Lehigh's projected sulfur dioxide emissions by more than half and that soot pollution could be reduced by 20 percent.
Lehigh has been a longtime, important resident of Carroll County. Its expansion is one of the largest in Maryland, the most expensive private project in Carroll's history.
These are among the reasons to hope the German-owned company reaches a prompt resolution with EPA so it can increase its cement output.
At the same time, Lehigh must recognize the obligation that new plants have to use the best technology to reduce air pollution.