Responding to residents’ requests that it get more involved, the Los Altos City Council last week pledged to take a more active role in opposing expansion plans for the long-running cement plant and limestone quarry in the nearby Cupertino foothills.
Citing numerous environmental hazards, council members agreed June 8 to form a council subcommittee at a near-future meeting to more closely monitor ongoing issues at the Lehigh Southwest Cement Co. facility. Council members would work with the city’s Environmental Commission and communicate with other agencies as the city keeps tabs on a Lehigh lawsuit against Santa Clara County over efforts to expand mining.
One of those agencies, the Los Altos-based Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, was featured in a council presentation at last week’s meeting. Board member Yoriko Kishimoto said Midpen has formed its own ad hoc committee to respond to the expansion efforts, detailed in what’s called a proposed reclamation plan amendment. Plans call for digging a second pit; importing material from outside the quarry to fill the existing pit, requiring more than 600 truck trips per day; and disturbing a viewshed that has been protected under a 1972 agreement.
Kishimoto said the district, with its Rancho San Antonio Open Space Preserve nearby, sent a letter to Lehigh officials early this spring “outlining our priorities. … These priorities include the ridgeline easement, protecting Permanente Creek, protecting water and air quality, and long-term ecosystem and wildlife habitat quality. … We hope Los Altos will collaborate with us.”
Health and safety concerns
Residents who spoke at the meeting encouraged Los Altos’ involvement.
“Please do step up oversight of the quarry expansion proposals,” said Cupertino resident Rhoda Fry, a longtime and frequent critic of Lehigh’s activity. “It is inconceivable that Lehigh would even contemplate mining our viewshed that is protected by the 1972 ridgeline protection easement deed. The plan is to lower the ridgeline by 100 feet while raising the adjacent mining waste area by 160 feet – that’s a 260-foot change in elevation. Lehigh has a history of getting what they want. Santa Clara County has a history of giving them what they want.”
“For a long time this has been viewed as a Cupertino issue,” said Los Altos resident Pete Dailey. “But as we can see, this is a Los Altos issue. (Lehigh) has poisoned Permanente Creek that flows through our town. We have a vested interest. … It’s time to hold Lehigh accountable and time to get behind forcing the county to hold them accountable as well.”
The county Board of Supervisors determined in 2011 that Lehigh had vested rights to mine on portions of its 3,500-acre property – land that had been mined dating back to the early 20th century. Environmentalists appealed the decision and lost. Lehigh filed its controversial reclamation plan amendment in 2019.
The pandemic and problems with aging infrastructure brought operations to a virtual standstill last year, prompting one official to suggest “mothballing” the facility. But Lehigh sued the county in February to forward its expansion plan, and its parent company, Germany-based HeidelbergCement, retained the Cupertino location even as it announced the sale last month of other West Coast properties.