Residents Pepper Officials On Cement Plant Health Risk

Citizens at a Los Altos Hills forum push for more regulation and even an end to operations, despite a consultant's report of low health risk from the Lehigh Southwest Permanente cement plant.

From Monday night's workshop at Los Altos Hills Town Hall, it's clear that the concern over health risks from the Lehigh Southwest Cement plant is not going away.

Although a consulting company reviewed data recently and found the risk to Los Altos and Los Altos Hills from the plant and quarry is small, concern from an engaged audience of residents kept experts busy answering questions for two hours. 

Representatives from , as well as from two government agencies charged with regulating the company’s operations just outside of Cupertino, were peppered with written questions—some highly detailed, others sharp with criticism.

“The easy way for the consultants to go is to bless everything the air district says because they will have your back," said Cupertino resident and BACE member Tim Brand, during an open microphone period at the end of the meeting.

"Much was overlooked and has the appearance of a whitewash.”

Officials from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) and the Regional Water Quality Control Board joined the Iris Environmental scientists on the panel that was moderated by Los Altos Hills Councilmember Gary Waldeck, and his colleagues from Los Altos, council members David Casas and Ron Packard.

Despite the report’s conclusions, and assurances from BAAQMD representatives Brian Bateman and Eric Stevenson that the health risk to residents is low, members of local activist groups, Quarry No and Bay Area Clean Environment (BACE), as well as other residents from the two cities and Cupertino, continued to insist methodologies used to monitor emissions and discharges are inadequate.

The meeting drew high interest, from nearly 50 people that included elected representatives like Los Altos Hills Mayor Rich Larsen, Cupertino council members Barry Chang and Rod Sinks, and Santa Clara Valley Water District Board Member Brian Schmidt. Lehigh Southwest officials were also in attendance, but did not speak.

The next steps, according to Iris Environmental’s John McLaughlin include ongoing monitoring.

"The facility needs to continue to be monitored and regulated to ensure that facility operations are not impacting the air quality … or the water quality of Permanente Creek,” he said. 

Toward the end of the meeting the two sides of the ongoing Lehigh debate were summed up near the end of the workshop by comments by Quarry No's Bill Almon and Los Altos resident Rich Feldman.

"What we need is wisdom, wisdom to tell us the answer," said Los Altos Hills resident Bill Almon representing the group Quarry No, which first raised the concern with the town.

"And the answer is you cannot have a big source of pollutants in a residential area. And I know no one in this room is responsible to do that, but everybody has to work on it."

Said Feldman, "I wanted to remind everybody, our civiliation needs cement plants, just like we need oil refineries, and in most cases these plants and refineries were here first."

Here are some of the highlights of the large amount of information revealed by panel members during the meeting:

  • The Health Risk Assessment (HRA) for Lehigh, released in March 2011, was of particular interest to residents who questioned its validity, but BAAQMD’s Bateman stood by it, pointing out that in addition to his agency reviewing the HRA, another state agency, the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessments, had “signed off” on the HRA. “There was nothing really that we would say would change the outcome of the risk assessment in terms of the bottom line, so we’re not asking for a revision of the risk assessment…based on what we’ve seen to date, we believe it was properly done.” Bateman also called the HRA “state of the art” and said he believes Lehigh is more stringently regulated than other plants in the state.
  • After a full year of data collection, a monitoring station at Monta Vista Park in Cupertino “tracks fairly well” with other stations around the Bay Area region, with results showing concentrations of toxins that were not “out of line” with those stations, according to Stevenson. Overall emissions of compounds fell near the middle, or at the lesser end of the spectrum. A report on the station’s data is available on the BAAQMD website. Bateman said particulate matter emissions from diesel trucks, like the ones used to transport materials to and from the plant, are higher than any other particulates monitored at the site, but “the magnitude of risk is quite a bit lower than at other sites."
  • The Regional Water Quality Control Board is moving Lehigh from a Sand and Gravel Permit to an even more tightly controlled individual permit, said Assistant Executive Director Dyan Whyte, a process of evaluation and monitoring that will take 12 to 18 months. Whyte said several times that the agency is hampered by inadequate staffing. She noted that she has two and a half staff available to monitor 1,300 industrial storm water permits in the Bay Area. Over the last 15 years the agency has gone from 130 employees to 100, she said.
  • Although residents wanted to know more about discharges of selenium and other toxics into Permanente Creek in light of the Sierra Club lawsuit against Lehigh, Whyte could not answer anything related to
  • A continuous monitor to track mercury was installed at the cement plant in October, the only plant in the state believed to have the technology, according to Bateman. He said he believes the BAAQMD now has a “much better way of knowing” what mercury emissions are, although the system is still in the process of being tested and evaluated in comparison to a previous method of monitoring.
  • In response to a question about why diesel truck trips were not included in the HRA, Bateman said trucks are considered mobile sources, and are regulated by a different state agency. He said tighter regulations are coming over the next 10 years, and he expects emissions from diesel engines to lower considerably; the goal is to lower emissions overall by 85 percent.
  • The panel took on questions concerning imported limestone Lehigh used recently. Some activists have asserted that the company used limestone from a quarry in Davenport that has high levels of hexavalent chromium, although Lehigh officials told Patch on Jan. 26 that this was not true. They said after quarry operations were shut down for a limited time, and the company purchased excess limestone from another company that acquired the limestone from a quarry in British Columbia.
Frank Geefay February 08, 2012 at 06:54 PM
This issue has nothing to do about who was here first. It is about providing safe levels of toxic pollution and greenhouse gasses to provide a healthy and environmentally sustainable operation. The BAAQMD's Health Risk assessment is seriously flawed! It does not take into account synergistic interactions of pollutants upon health. BAAQMD is ignoring this important factor because they don't know how to deal with it. Emissions are also at an all-time low because Lehigh's production is half their normal capacity due to the poor economy. Monitored data will be uncharacteristically low. Measured emissions used for the Health Risk Assessment data do not represent more normal levels when business it good. For BAAQMD to claim Lehigh safe because of the results of the current data and ignoring synergistic interactions in the Health Risk Assessment is deceptive and not protecting the long term interest of the citizens they are chartered to protect. They give the public a sense of favoritism towards Lehigh. Permanente Creek water discharge is also very low due to a very dry winter. Any water samples taken will not be representative of more normal water discharge. Chemicals such as selenium will be much lower than normal or when the creek is at full flow during storms or when Lehigh discharges water into the stream.
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