Residents and elected officials applaud the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors who took steps to expose the entire record of violations at the Bay Area’s only cement manufacturer.
The board unanimously approved a referral from Supervisor Joe Simitian last week to create a report detailing all violations relating the Lehigh Permanente Quarry and Cement Plant. The 3,510-acre operation covers unincorporated Santa Clara County as well as Cupertino, Palo Alto, and Cupertino. Locals have complained for years that the mining operation pollutes the environment and degrades the visual beauty.
Simitian told San Jose Spotlight that he believes that the report is necessary in order to keep track all the regulatory enforcement actions taken by the 14 local, state, federal and county agencies that oversee Lehigh. A clearer picture of violations will help the board understand the extent of violations in the past few years and what actions should be taken.
Simitian stated, “I believe it’s time for us to start asking ourselves what the long-term fate of this site is.” “What is the long-term outlook here? How is that going to be managed?”
It is not clear what prompted the board’s decision to take this action. Since years, the county and other enforcement agencies, such as the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board (EPA) and the EPA have issued violations against the quarry and plant operators. The violations range from releasing chemically-tainted water to local streams to exceeding local noise ordinances using loud trucks and releasing pollutants that increase air pollution. After learning that the company was using it to haul loads each day of mined stones, the county closed the Lehigh utility road.
Lehigh submitted a 2019 application to the county for permission to expand its mining operations into the hillside. This alarm raised alarm among environmental activists who fear that this will increase erosion and require more truck trips through Cupertino. The county began looking at the cost of cleaning up the quarry and restoring the land last year.
Simitian, a half-dozen town hall organizers who have held several meetings since 2013 to inform the community about the plant, suggested that the board require detailed records to determine whether Lehigh has violated its use permit, which was granted by the county in 1939. Although the permit does not provide much detail, it contains a provision that states that the board can suspend the permit for violations.
Lehigh did no respond to a request to comment. Lehigh’s Vice President Carol Lowry, general counsel, stated in a Jan. 24-sent letter to supervisors that the company’s top priority was operating safely and adhering to regulations. Lowry noted that Lehigh keeps its site transparent through monthly tours and calls with county employees.
Lowry stated, “We look forwards to reviewing the consolidated historic report as suggested in the referral letter” and asked for the opportunity to present Lehigh’s responses to each matter.
Leaders from the communities surrounding the quarry and plant said they are grateful that the board is looking into Lehigh’s enforcement record. Anita Enander, Los Altos mayor, said to San Jose Spotlight that there have been long-standing environmental concerns about this quarry. This includes pollution entering Permanente Creek that drains from the quarry and runs through Los Altos. Enander said that she has attended several town halls, and found them useful, but that more could be done in order to inform residents.
She stated that it was not practical for a municipality to keep track of all the information. “It is really admirable that the county is taking this on and trying to pull it together.”
Cupertino keeps a public list of Lehigh’s violations online, but it is a small collection and many notices go back more than a decade. It doesn’t include recent violations like the $60,000 penalty that the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board imposed on Lehigh in 2021 after the company released millions of gallons chlorineized water into Permanente Creek.
Cupertino Mayor Darcy Paul stated that Simitian was trying to increase transparency in the general area about what has been done over time and where there have been violations. “San Jose Spotlight asked Simitian.
Rhoda Fry, a Cupertino resident, has been following Lehigh’s violations for many years. She claims that Lehigh’s violations have been ignored by regulatory agencies. Fry also believes that even with the enforcement records, it is unlikely that the county will have a complete view of Lehigh’s infractions.
Fry stated to San Jose Spotlight that the data he won’t get is the data that should be violations, things that were reported but never taken action on.