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Lehigh Restoration Plan Approved; Opponents Stunned by Rock Pile Size

The Santa Clara County Planning Commission votes unanimously to approve the plan, which Lehigh officials say will reclaim 639 acres of quarry property.

In a decision that impacts local foothills and communities along Permanente Creek for the next two decades and beyond, the a plan to reclaim hundreds of acres of the Permanente Quarry operated by .

“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 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 he presented the plan to backed the EMSA restoration plan.

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.

Frank Geefay June 11, 2012 at 06:19 PM
Here is just another example where big government regulators work with big corporate America (or in this case Germany) against the interests of the little citizens of America for whom they are supposed to protect. Big money from Lehigh went to the County so the County could acquire additional resources to expedite the Restoration Plan in order to work around OMR’s AB3098 claim that Lehigh did not have a valid Reclamation Plan. Big Corporate Money talks louder than the little voices of our community. I guess that is now the American way. Big brother in action. No more checks and balances, just big bucks and government officials such as the County Supervisors controlled by corporate America. See how campaigns are now financed. Corporations buy politicians through Enormous megabuck campaign contributions. See how much big corporate money is being pumped into the upcoming elections. Campaign reform and contribution and spending limits are badly needed. (County Supervisors have contribution limits but there are workarounds) I am somewhat mystified by the comments made by Commissioner Dennis Chiu who said that ‘he was worried that by removing overburdened rock from EMSA, it would result in the release of more selenium’. The same could be said about the WMSA which will be used to fill in the pit mine. I’m convinced he got that thought from Lehigh.
Frank Geefay June 11, 2012 at 09:12 PM
Please click on the Pdfs file supplied by Lehigh next to the photos above. This will give you some idea of how really close (photos 2-4) some residents live from the cement plant.
Tim Brand June 12, 2012 at 02:43 PM
Ironically AB3098, which is supposed to help enforce regulations, was turned on its ear and used as a hammer to force approval of this plan. The County argued that if they didn’t approve the plan fast Lehigh might be at risk of losing the right to sell their product to the government, and they used that logic to invoke a loophole in the California Environmental Quality Act that allows an “Overriding Consideration”. This Overriding Consideration was used to justify the continued “significant” environmental damage (and violations to the Clean Water Act) which will be caused by this plan. So Lehigh violates the law for more than 10 years and gets away with selling to the government the whole time despite AB3098. And when reckoning time finally comes due to more than 28,000 signatures on a petition demanding enforcement of AB3098, the County used the impending enforcement action to approve a reckless plan to help Lehigh avoid the consequences of their behavior. Further irony is that this “Overriding Consideration” was all about the cement plant while during the entire Environmental Impact Process the County’s position was, “The cement plant is not a component of the project.” (as stated in the final EIR page 3.1-18, section B)
Frank Geefay June 12, 2012 at 05:19 PM
Tim brings up an excellent point about the deliberate omission to incorporate the cement plant into the Reclamation Plan amendment. As things currently stand Lehigh must restore the mined land to a natural state but they can leave the huge cement plant facility as a hazardous and toxic decaying monument after they leave. That includes most of the conveyer belt, crushers, and other equipment that exists used to manufacture clinker. This presents a prime environment for accidents and exposure to hazardous materials for curious children and adult exploring these hazardous rusting relics. Lehigh has no obligation to take these structures down and make the property safe once they are finished mining. Tax payers will end up paying millions for it if it is to be cleaned up.

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