Wed11262014

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Simitian pushes for tighter oversight of Lehigh


Town Crier File Photo
Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian advised the county to keep a close eye on the Lehigh cement quarry.

Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian recently advised the county to keep a closer watch on the activities of the controversial Lehigh Southwest Cement Co. quarry south of Los Altos and Los Altos Hills.

“My conversations with community members, public officials, county planning staff and representatives of Lehigh, in addition to my own research and history with this facility, lead me to believe that it would be in everybody’s interest if the county asserted its oversight role more fully,” Simitian said in a memo last month to County Executive Jeffrey Smith.

Simitian, who represents District 5 – which includes Los Altos, Los Altos Hills and Mountain View – has proposed monthly site visits by county staff. Historically, annual visits were mandated, but last year the visits were upped to quarterly.

“I have been struck during this past year by the very different perspectives of concerned community members and representatives of the Lehigh facility,” Simitian noted in the memo. “Lehigh representatives continue to assert exemplary performance. On the other hand, a significant segment of the community and a number of locally elected officials are skeptical at best. It seems to me that the basic compliance questions – what is or isn’t happening on site – should be easy enough to answer.”

The former Kaiser Permanente facility, located on 3,500 acres in the unincorporated county area south of Los Altos and Los Altos Hills and west of Cupertino, has been mining limestone and making cement since 1939. The process is environmentally hazardous, requiring Lehigh to answer to several regulatory agencies, including the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, the San Francisco Regional Water Quality Control Board and the state Office of Mine Reclamation. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency mandates limits on the plant’s emissions.

Reassuring the public

The number of regulators presents a problem, Simitian said, because “the left hand and the right hand aren’t well coordinated.” He suggested that representatives from all the regulatory boards meet twice a year to “give the public some reassurance that the various regulatory bodies are in regular conversation.”

“I have two goals here. One is substantive – that they do what they’re supposed to do,” Simitian told the Town Crier, adding that the second goal, more frequent and coordinated visits, would offer “assurances to the public.”

Smith agreed to implement Simitian’s request – the other supervisors do not have to approve the proposal.

“The cost should be modest and fully recoverable from Lehigh,” Simitian said. “To my knowledge, Lehigh has not indicated any objection to covering the costs of such site visits.”

“If Joe wants to arrange those meetings, we’re happy to oblige,” Lehigh spokesman Jay Reed said. “We’re happy to pick up those costs.”

The latest action underlines the volatility of the relationship between the working quarry and the residential homes that surround it. Lehigh officials said they have minimized environmental impacts as much as possible while continuing to contribute the lion’s share of cement for structures around the Bay Area.

Opponents range from those who claim Lehigh could do more to those who want nothing less than the plant shut down. The 2012 county approval of Lehigh’s reclamation plan amendment ensures that the quarry is certified to operate at least another 25 years.

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