Editor's note: On March 8, the County Planning Office issued a statement saying a March 22 Planning Commission meeting has been postponed. A new date at which the draft Environmental Impact Report—the subject of this article—will be discussed and reviewed will be announced after March 23.
A draft environmental impact report for Lehigh Southwest Permanente Quarry is seriously flawed and should not be approved by Santa Clara County planning commissioners later this month, according to at least two government agencies that submitted comments—some of them scathing—to county planners.
“The environmental impacts have been significantly underestimated and under-identified,” wrote Shin-Roei Lee, chief of the Watershed Management Division of the San Francisco Region Water Quality Control Board.
“It is premature to approve the dEIR (draft environmental impact report) as it is currently written. To do so would ignore the better practical alternatives and the reclamation activities’ real threats to water quality or human health,” wrote Lee in the 29-page, detailed document.
The water board recommends more sampling and analysis before moving forward. “At a minimum, the dEIR should be re-circulated," it stated.
A letter from the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District written by resource planner Matt Baldzikowski is sharply critical of several aspects of the dEIR, including how reclamation of the plan will impact views, air, water, and recreation.
The open space district chastises both Lehigh and the county for a growing rock waste pile, the East Materials Storage Area (EMSA), calling it a “bold desperate move by the quarry” that was “aided by poor county oversight.”
Baldzikowski called the visual impacts of the EMSA, clearly visible from Rancho San Antonio County Park, “staggering” and says future plans to revegetate the area are “misleading”, because of the challenges of covering and planting what is mostly rock.
Both agencies say in their comments that testing of EMSA and the West Materials Storage Area (WMSA) to date is inadequate, and suggest that the piles could be harboring toxins that could drain into the groundwater below.
The Santa Clara County Planning Department, which is also the lead agency overseeing Lehigh’s mining operations for the state, is preparing the dEIR for a reclamation plan amendment required of Lehigh by state law.
The three-phase amendment to a reclamation plan approved by the county in 1985 details how the mining and cement company will reclaim 1,238 acres of land used for mining since the early 1930s over the next 20 years. The EIR details the environmental consequences resulting from reclamation activities.
While normally complex reports like the dEIR take a lengthy amount of time to create, as Lehigh faces state deadlines that could seriously impact the company’s ability to do business.
County planners said at a February forum they hoped to schedule adoption of both the dEIR and the reclamation plan at a March 22 county Planning Commission meeting, but as of March 8 that meeting was postponed.
"The County Planning Office has determined that additional time is necessary to complete the preparation of responses to the comments that were received regarding the Draft Environmental Impact Report for this project. The revised date for the Planning Commission public hearing will be announced by Friday, March 23, 2012," the planning office wrote in an announcement.
The water board’s Lee takes county planners to task for accelerating the dEIR. “The water board does not find an onerous schedule a valid reason for minimizing impacts to the environment," she said.
Lee also charges that the data provided in the report are insufficient, and that the “standards of work” are not consistent with those required by the Surface Mining and Reclamation Act (SMARA), as well as Federal Clean Water Act, and the Porter-Cologne Water Quality Control Act.
A major issue for both agencies is a lack of information as to whether Lehigh’s waste piles, the EMSA and the West Materials Storage Pile (WMSA), are harboring toxic materials, and subsequently polluting the groundwater below.
The water board says that “adequate testing has never been completed,” and that the agency has never received a Report of Waste Discharge for either EMSA or WMSA.
The board’s comments state that, “it is likely that waste and leachate are in contact with or have impacted groundwater quality.”
In addition, the water board says it has photographic evidence of cement kiln waste in EMSA, and points out that the land beneath the pile was previously the site of the Kaiser Aluminum plant from 1941 to 1990.
“The water board has information that hazardous waste from the decommissioning of the Kaiser Aluminum facility has also been deposited in the vicinity of the EMSA,” read the water board letter.
Yet another major issue is the polluting of Permanente Creek, , and a current , primarily because of suspected elevated selenium discharges. During reclamation, it’s probable that discharges of selenium and other toxins will occur, according to the dEIR. However, the report states that water treatment is infeasible due to high operating costs.
“The quarry simply needs to stop polluting as a cost of doing business,” wrote the open space district. “We question and strongly disagree with the dEIR assertion that water treatment is infeasible and that the significant and unavoidable water quality pollution impacts would instead simply be allowed to continue, and likely worsen, well into the future.”
Noting that Permanente Creek is listed by the federal government as an impaired water body due to increased levels of selenium, the water board stated in bold typeface that further discharges “may be prohibited.”
The dEIR, the reclamation plan, and the comments by the water board and open space district, as well as other groups and agencies, are available on the county's website.