In a decision that affects local foothills and communities along Permanente Creek for the next two decades and beyond, the Santa Clara County Planning Commission unanimously approved a plan to reclaim hundreds of acres of the Permanente Quarry owned by Lehigh Southwest Cement.
“I couldn’t be more disappointed,” said Cupertino City Councilmember Rod Sinks, who attended the Thursday, June 7, meeting representing himself and the group Bay Area Clean Environment (BACE). “This company is good at railroading, and they did just that.”
Lehigh is pleased with the approval outcome and says the process represents "a great deal of work and involvement from our stakeholders in the community and our neighbors whose suggestions have been incorporated into the plan,” a company spokesperson said.
The affirmative vote on the Lehigh Reclamation Plan Amendment (RPA) gives the company a green light to begin work restoring 639 acres of land disturbed by mining that has taken place since the last century, including eventually backfilling the main quarry pit, and restoring Permanente Creek which is considered an impaired waterway for the toxin, selenium.
Despite complaints from environmentalists and residents, Lehigh officials steadfastly maintained to commissioners over a series of meetings since last month that the company is committed to good environmental stewardship and restoring the land.
"I've been in the mining industry for about 30 years now, and this is the best reclamation plan I've ever seen," Marvin Howell, Lehigh's director of planning and permitting, told commissioners in the first installment of the hearing on May 24.
Last Thursday the planning commission completed approval on 90 conditions to the plan, based on recommendations from the environmental impact report (EIR) approved by a majority of commissioners a week earlier.
Along with selenium contamination of Permanente Creek, another major focus of commission testimony and discussions over four meetings in the past month was the East Materials Storage Area (EMSA).
On Thursday, Sinks and other opponents were stunned by the revelation during testimony that EMSA, a rising pile of gray waste rock near Rancho San Antonio County Park, will grow by another 3.8 million cubic yards by 2015.
There were audible gasps when the numbers were announced. Lehigh's Howell stressed that the pile is at its maximum height. It will elongate and eventually be covered by a foot of soil and native vegetation, blocking the view of cement plant operations.
According to a Lehigh statement, 4.3 million cubic yards have been placed in EMSA since 1939, including about 1 million cubic yards deposited since the company filed the RPA application last year. The remaining 3.8 million is a part of the completed reclamation plan.
Representatives from groups like BACE and Los Altos Hills based-Quarry No argued that local residents do not want the EMSA to grow, and expressed serious doubts that restoration efforts would be successful in creating a natural vegetated ridge-look when complete.
In an earlier meeting Howell told commissioners that residents to whom he presented the plan backed the EMSA restoration plan.
But Sinks responded on Thursday, May 31, with the results of an online survey of more than 200 local residents showing that 90 percent wanted the pile removed.
At the same meeting, Quarry No founder Bill Almon told commissioners he doubted capping and re-vegetating EMSA would work, based on the failure of earlier efforts to re-vegetate the West Materials Storage Area (WMSA), which he can see from his home in Los Altos Hills. From points in Los Altos and Mountain View, the WMSA ridge sticks out as sparsely vegetated compared to surrounding hills.
Howell told commissioners earlier that previous quarry owners did not use native seeds or irrigation; he said he was confident Lehigh's improved methods would yield better results.
Planning Commissioner John Vidovich, of Los Altos Hills, unsuccessfully attempted maneuvers during the hearing to reduce the scale of EMSA and possibly create a more aesthetically pleasing ridgeline.
Commissioner Dennis Chiu said he was worried that by removing overburdened rock from EMSA, it would result in the release of more selenium, which is naturally present in the quarry’s limestone deposits. Undisturbed in the ground, or capped, the toxin does not pose a danger to wildlife or in extreme cases, humans.
“Although I have a lot of sympathy for this meeting having to look at this potentially barren and ugly hill, I can’t avoid that the way to decrease that visual impact would be to release more toxins into the environment,” Chiu said. “Balancing those two I am going to have to say it’s not a great option, but I would vote to leave the EMSA as it’s stated in the reclamation plan.”
In comments after the meeting Sinks argued that the potential release of toxins is just as great with reducing the size of WMSA, as outlined by the RPA. Eventually materials from WMSA will be used to backfill the main quarry pit.
Although opponents could appeal the planning commission’s decision to the Board of Supervisors, Almon called it “a waste of time,” since the board has voted in support of Lehigh operations in the past. He indicated a lawsuit contesting the EIR, which he argued was incomplete, would be a possibility.