The Lehigh Southwest Cement quarry came under further scrutiny last week, in part after revelations that the company is possibly discharging millions of gallons of unpermitted water containing sediment and toxins into Permanente Creek and San Francisco Bay.
Officials from the California Regional Water Quality Control Board were at the quarry outside Cupertino on Wednesday to study the situation, after having sent a notice of violation to Lehigh officials in February stating that the company is violating its storm drain permit and must apply for a more stringent permit.
On Tuesday the Los Altos City Council had voted to support further study by a . Los Altos Mayor Ron Packard and Los Altos Hills Councilman Gary Waldeck met earlier with water board and air quality officials in separate meetings to collect information about how the cement plant and quarry may be affecting residents and the surrounding environment.
Water Board Notices of Violation
On Feb. 18, the state water board issued a notice of violation stating that Lehigh is in violation of its Industrial Storm Water General Permit “and is discharging non-stormwater without permit coverage.” The company could be liable for fines of up to $10,000 a day in administrative fines, or up to $25,000 a day in civil fines, should the water board pursue the matter further.
The letter also stated that Lehigh is in violation of a standard for erosion and sediment controls. An inspection approximately one year ago noted muddy water flowing unhindered into Permanente Creek, sedimentation ponds and traps “overwhelmed” with sediment, and “insufficient use of erosion control.” The violation could be subject to similar administrative and civil fines, according to the letter.
An attorney for the water board said the notice of violation is a way to engage the company in further information gathering. How Lehigh officials cooperate with the state will influence whether fines are pursued.
“We’re going to engage with them and try to resolve them,” said Cris Carrigan, water board counsel. "No decisions have been made either way."
In an e-mail, Lehigh’s Environmental Manager Tim Matz said, “Lehigh is conducting its own investigation of these alleged violations and hopes to work with the water board to resolve them amicably.”
Matz said the company does not comment on “ongoing legal matters” but stated that the company has been regularly conducting inspections and tests, reporting results to the water board.
However, at Tuesday’s Los Altos City Council meeting, Mayor Ron Packard said water board officials complained about the way Lehigh reports the information, buried in stacks of paperwork the agency is understaffed to sift through.
“The water board is not happy with Lehigh,” Packard told the council. Later he said that both agencies described Lehigh as “not an ideal corporate citizen. They will cut corners when they can.”
Of more immediate concern to the board, Carrigan said in an interview, is that Lehigh is not operating under the proper discharge permit. The agency wants Lehigh officials to obtain a more stringent permit commonly known as a “Sand and Gravel Permit.”
“Lehigh discharges hundreds of thousands to millions of gallons per day of unpermitted non-stormwater, which is expressly prohibited” under the company’s current permit, the notice of violation states. “Furthermore, we find that Permanente Creek is not being adequately protected under the existing permit.”
Matz said in the e-mail statement, “Several systems are in place as part of our Stormwater Pollution Prevention Plan (SWPPP) to protect the Permanente Creek, including erosion controls, a series of sedimentation basins, frequent inspections and regular water quality monitoring and testing.”
Carrigan said Lehigh officials responded quickly to the water board’s notice, denying the company had violated its permit, however acknowledging the company would pursue the Sand and Gravel Permit.
Neighboring Cities Want Independent Studies
In the meantime, Packard told the Los Altos City Council members that he wants the joint committee to continue studying Lehigh’s affect on local air and water—possibly hiring an independent expert—after meeting with water board and Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) officials.
Packard said that according to BAAQMD officials, Lehigh is emitting toxins below federal levels. They told the committee that Lehigh is pursuing the installation of equipment that will help it meet new EPA rules requiring companies to reduce mercury emissions by 95 percent starting in 2013. Packard said they were told the new equipment will cost the company $50 million.
Bill Almon of the organization Quarry No challenged the BAAQMD’s assertions at Tuesday’s council meeting. He said that while a monitoring station in Cupertino has recorded emissions lower than federal standards, Lehigh’s own reporting of emission impacts at Montclaire Elementary School in Los Altos at certain times over the last three years were higher.
After hearing Packard’s report and Almon’s testimony, the Los Altos Council agreed that the joint committee should determine what specific areas an independent expert might look into, should the two cities hire one in the future. Specifically council members wanted to know if the Cupertino monitoring location at Monta Vista Park was the best location to determine emission levels.
The council also agreed to a joint hearing with the two councils, the BAAQMD and the state water board in May. Finally, the council gave Packard authority to send official letters to regulatory agencies voicing the city’s concerns.
The BAAQMD is by March 25 for the renewal of Lehigh’s Title V Permit with the EPA. Santa Clara County seeks comment by April 11 for a conditional use permit to dig a new 200-acre pit mine on quarry property.
On Friday, county planners announced a public meeting to discuss the use permit on Wednesday, March 30, 7-9 p.m., at the Quinlan Center, 10185 N. Stelling Rd., Cupertino.