An embattled cement plant near Cupertino might lose its permit to operate next year.
The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously this month to start a process to consider revoking or amending Lehigh Southwest Cement Company’s use permit. The decision comes roughly a month after the company announced it would permanently shut down its cement kiln at its 3,510-acre Permanente Quarry and Cement Plant. Lehigh is the only cement manufacturer in the Bay Area. It currently operates as a cement distribution location.
“I have been encouraged that the folks at Lehigh have stepped up and said, ‘We’re going to stop making cement at the plant,’ but that’s not a legally binding commitment,” Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian told San José Spotlight. “How can we be sure that’s real and lasting?”
Simitian, who represents the area, has been a leading critic of the plant’s regulatory violations and detrimental effects on the environment. At Simitian’s urging, the county produced a report detailing how the cement operation has accumulated more than 2,100 violations from different regulatory agencies over the past decade—with more than 100 deemed serious violations. The operation has been a subject of resident complaints for decades.
Simitian said his ultimate goal is to close the cement plant, stop the mining operation in the quarry and eventually restore and reclaim the property. He hopes Lehigh works with the county to resolve the issue.
“If we can negotiate a settlement that gives us guarantees, it’d be better because that’s more certainty and could conceivably take less time,” Simitian said.
Company spokesperson Jeff Sieg did not respond to requests for comment. Earlier this month, a representative of the company urged local policymakers to halt the process.
“Any concerns related to a public nuisance or violations of the use permit simply no longer exist because Lehigh will not restart cement production,” Patrick G. Mitchell, a lawyer representing the company, said in a statement. “Further investigation of this issue would waste valuable time and effort of all the parties, which would be much better spent focused on working collaboratively with Lehigh to plan for the future of the Perm Site.”
The cement plant dates back to around 1939, but limestone has been mined from the quarry since the early 1900s. The quarry resides in unincorporated Santa Clara County and parts of Cupertino and Palo Alto. Cement from the Lehigh site has been used to build major projects around the Bay Area and the state, including Mineta San Jose International Airport and the Golden Gate Bridge, the company said.
If Lehigh and the county fail to come to an agreement soon, the Santa Clara County Planning Commission will host a public hearing to look into the company’s legal violations. The commission will also determine if the operation is a public nuisance and potentially revoke Lehigh’s permit. This would legally prevent the company from producing cement.
More than 300 Santa Clara County residents wrote to supervisors in support of the decision to revoke or modify Lehigh’s permit, citing decades of noise, dust, air and water pollution, among other things.
Brian Schmidt, policy and advocacy director at preservation group Green Foothills, applauds the county’s effort to scrutinize the cement plant operation.
“There’s clearly a long history of a lot of environmental violations here,” Schmidt told San José Spotlight. “The plant might have been in the right place a long time ago, but it’s not anymore. This is Silicon Valley, where tens of thousands people are living. It’s more than time for this to be shut down.”
Cupertino resident Rhoda Fry, who has advocated for the closure of the cement plant for more than a decade, hopes to see the county acquire the land.
“Lehigh has been putting profit ahead of people,” Fry told San José Spotlight. “We have subsidized this cement plant and quarry with our health for generations.”