At long last, after thousands of environmental violations and more than $2.5 million in fines, an agreement has been reached to shut down a 3,500-acre quarry that had sent wastewater laced with selenium into San Francisco Bay.
The permanent closure of Lehigh Quarry and Cement’s cement production in an unincorporated area of Santa Clara County near Cupertino is a long overdue environmental victory for the Bay Area.
For decades, Lehigh had provided more than half the cement used in Bay Area construction projects. Cement distribution will allow construction projects to continue without the massive regional environmental impact.
The hope is that the eyesore site in the Santa Cruz Mountains will eventually be restored to its former beauty.
As a model for the reclamation, planners should look to the successful conversion of the 320-foot-deep Dumbarton Quarry gravel pit in Fremont into an East Bay family campground with 65 campsites.
Mining at the Lehigh site first began in 1903. The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to vote Tuesday on the proposed deal with the company to permanently shut down its cement production efforts.
The Texas-based company halted operation at its kiln during the pandemic but continued its cement distribution business. Since then, the county has been working to negotiate a legally enforceable agreement to prevent Lehigh from restarting its cement production.
Give Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian credit for spearheading the closure.
In 2019, Lehigh applied to amend its reclamation plan, approved by the Board of Supervisors in 2012, to increase total mining production at its quarry by approximately 600,000 tons a year. The expansion, Simitian said, would have required Lehigh to “chop the top” of its hillside operation.
Simitian and Cupertino city councilmembers were already feuding with Lehigh over its management of the site. Cupertino officials maintained that the company’s plans would require more than 500 truck trips through Cupertino streets every day for years.
Simitian asked for a full accounting of Lehigh’s violations. The ensuing county report uncovered 2,135 violations between 2012 to 2021.
Among them, Lehigh in 2015 had agreed to pay a civil penalty of nearly $2.6 million to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state Regional Water Quality Control Board. EPA officials said Lehigh illegally dumped millions of gallons of industrial wastewater laced with selenium and other metals into Permanente Creek, which flows into the San Francisco Bay.
Violations also included the unpermitted expansion of an emergency access road leading through Cupertino city property to the plant and the removal of 35 protected trees along the road.
Simitian used the county report to win Board of Supervisors support for the Planning Commission to study whether Lehigh’s use permit should be revoked. The threat sparked the lengthy negotiations with Lehigh that eventually led to an agreement to permanently shut down its mining and cement production.
After more than a century of environmental damage, the reclamation and restoration of the Lehigh site can’t start soon enough.
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