Cement plant in upscale Cupertino (photo: screen grab from ABC News)
Lehigh Southwest Cement Co. has been illegally dumping millions of gallons of industrial wastewater laced with selenium and other metals into a tributary of San Francisco Bay near Cupertino since at least 2009, but concievably long before that.
After an inquiry by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the company and the owner of the facility it uses, Hanson Permanente Cement Inc., agreed to stop doing that. In a settlement reached last week, Lehigh agreed to spend $5 million on wastewater treatment and pay a $2.5 million fine.
“This was pretty serious,” EPA Regional Administrator Jared Blumenfeld told the San Jose Mercury News. “Ultimately, the reason that this and other pollution sources to the bay are important is that the bay is still in peril.”
Lehigh’s limestone mine and cement plant throws off a lot of quarry process water, which is directed to Permanente Creek daily. The EPA release about the settlement noted, “When discharged at high concentrations to waterways, selenium becomes toxic to fish and other aquatic life, and to birds and other animals that consume selenium-contaminated aquatic organisms. . . . The creek provides important habitat for California red-legged frogs, a species listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.”
Neighbors who have been battling the cement plant for decades agree on the seriousness of the offenses, but weren’t thrilled with Lehigh’s punishment. “The penalty is too small when you consider this facility has been using Permanente Creek as its personal sewer for mining waste and toxic runoff for more than 80 years,” Paula Wallis, a neighbor whose property backs up to the creek, told the San Francisco Chronicle.
The Sierra Club sued the company in 2011 over selenium discharges and won a settlement in 2013. The company agreed to spend $10 million on restoration of Permanente Creek, which flows through an open space preserve, and implementation of a water treatment system. The company is regularly listed as one of the area’s worst offenders when it comes to heavy metal and noxious gas emissions.
The water pollution is pretty serious, but is hardly the least of the plant’s offenses. The EPA cited Lehigh in March 2010 for allegedly violating the federal Clean Air Act by emitting over 5,072 tons of oxides nitrogen (NOx) and over 2106.8 tons of sulfur dioxide (SO2) a year.
According to Cupertino City Councilman Barry Chang’s website, the plant is the only cement plant in the country without a central smokestack, “which would disperse the pollution quickly and provide for accurate monitoring.” It is also the only cement plant adjacent to a major metropolitan district.
Limestone has high concentrations of mercury and when Lehigh cooks it in giant kilns the metal vaporizes and becomes air-bound.
The Lehigh plant is old. There has been mining at the site since the late 19th century and, depending on who you talk to, the plant opened in 1926 or 1939. It produces half the cement used in the Bay Area and 70% of Santa Clara County’s. Shasta Dam was built with Lehigh cement.