Santa Clara County could commandeer controversial cement plant
An aerial view of the Lehigh Cement Plant and Quarry and the Stevens Creek Quarry. Photo courtesy of Jitze Cooperus.

A Santa Clara County supervisor wants the government to take control of a controversial cement quarry near Cupertino.

Supervisor Joe Simitian said the county must find a way to acquire the Lehigh Permanente Quarry and Cement Plant property during a Thursday news conference. Simitian is introducing a referral to the full Board of Supervisors on Feb. 15 to direct county officials to come back in 90 days with options for acquiring the land. Simitian wants to return the land to a natural state, although he also suggested it could potentially include housing sites.

“It’s an opportunity to respond to the very legitimate concerns of the community, which we’ve been hearing about for years,” Simitian said. “It’s an opportunity to conserve the land in a way that is consistent with the open space values that are essential to the place we are here in Silicon Valley.”

Community leaders have repeatedly sounded the alarm over alleged environmental violations stemming from the quarry, such as pollutants entering Permanente Creek, or the elevated emissions caused by the procession of trucks traveling to and from the plant through Cupertino. Last month, supervisors asked the county to compile all violations imposed on the operator of the plant and quarry over the past decade by local, state and federal agencies.

According to the county, the Lehigh cement plant has been in operation since 1958, but limestone has been mined from the quarry since the early 1900s. The quarry, which resides in unincorporated Santa Clara County and parts of Cupertino and Palo Alto, is the only major producer of cement in the Bay Area.

Reclaiming the land

The current reclamation plan for the quarry calls for closure in 2032. Simitian noted this timeline may not stick because Lehigh submitted an application in 2019 to expand mining operations at the site. The application is on hold, but Lehigh has indicated a new application may be forthcoming, Simitian added.

“I think (that) makes this the absolute, not only ideal but necessary time to say, ‘wait a minute, let’s start the conversation right now, so we can plan for a different future,’” Simitian said.

Lehigh spokesperson Jeff Sieg told San José Spotlight the company appreciates Simitian’s efforts to start a discussion about the future of the site.

“The Permanente cement plant and quarry have been and remain key contributors to the local economy and vital suppliers to critical Bay Area construction projects,” Sieg said. “As we evaluate optimal reclamation approaches and the future of the property in general, we look forward to hearing the county’s ideas that respect both the community interests and Lehigh’s property rights, as well as help create a more sustainable future.”

Local politicians who joined the news conference shared enthusiasm for Simitian’s proposal. Cupertino Mayor Darcy Paul said speeding up the closure of the plant and quarry will be beneficial for the health of residents.

“When we figure out ways to keep people safer, everyone benefits,” Paul said. He noted Cupertino residents have been exposed to severe traffic and dust from the mining operation.

Labor leaders from Teamsters Local 853 and Operating Engineers Local 3 also endorsed the plan. They noted the number of union workers employed at the plant has dwindled from hundreds to just a handful in recent years. Restoring the land will provide an economic boost for the local workforce, they said.

“I look forward to the restoration of the property, which will create good-paying jobs for many years,” said Eddie Venancio, business representative for the Teamsters.

Ana Ruiz, general manager of the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, said she’s been looking forward to the eventual reclamation of the property. The district is the largest landowning neighbor to the quarry, and Ruiz said wildlife exists in large swaths around it.

“We know these lands, especially the areas in the west of the quarry and ridges provide rugged areas that are still largely in a natural state,” Ruiz said, adding there is incredible habitat potential around the quarry.

Simitian acknowledged there are numerous unanswered questions about the proposal. He could not give a figure for the cost of acquiring the quarry. He also did not say whether it would be done through a direct sale or eminent domain. Simitian said he recently spoke with representatives from Lehigh about their long-term plans for the property, but did not share his acquisition idea.

Rhoda Fry, a Cupertino resident who tracks Lehigh’s violations, told San José Spotlight the idea of reclaiming the land for open space has been the end goal for many years. She is skeptical about using the land for housing.

“The county should really do some due diligence around looking at its toxic history,” Fry said.

Contact Eli Wolfe at [email protected] or @EliWolfe4 on Twitter. 

Comment Policy (updated 11/1/2021): We reserve the right to delete comments or ban users who engage in personal attacks, hate speech, excess profanity or make verifiably false statements. Comments are moderated and approved by administrators.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Your community newsroom needs you. Will you take a personal stake in its success?

Your gift to San José Spotlight today will be TRIPLED!

Your support allows us to staff amazing reporters like Tran Nguyen, who works tirelessly to bring you in-depth stories that directly affect your life.