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Questions arise on status of idle cement plant and quarry

Located in the foothills just south of Los Altos, Lehigh Southwest Cement Co. – formerly Permanente Cement Co. and historically the Bay Area’s foremost cement producer – has been quiet over the past year. But discussions of the current status and future of the high-polluting plant and quarry have been anything but.

In addition to Lehigh’s recently filed lawsuit against the Santa Clara County Planning Department over processing its controversial reclamation plan amendment, local leaders and residents have raised questions about current operations, plans and litigation surrounding the 3,510-acre site.

At the April 6 county Board of Supervisors meeting, District 5 Supervisor Joe Simitian, who represents Los Altos, Los Altos Hills, Cupertino and other cities near the site, asked county staff about current operations at the cement plant and quarry, and at what point their nonoperation could trigger “abandonment” of the cement plant’s use permit, in place since 1939.

According to deputy county counsel Elizabeth Pianca, stoppage of operations over a 12-month period “could create an abandonment of the use permit” under county code. She also indicated that Lehigh’s reclamation plan, governed by state law, could be suspended after an extended period of nonoperation, but could not offer a specific timeline.

Along with the county Planning Department, numerous regional, state and federal agencies oversee and regulate Lehigh operations. Jacqueline Onciano, director of county planning and development, said her department did not know to what extent Lehigh has been idle, and vowed to report back with an answer.

Also addressed was the condition of Lehigh facilities. Three of the plant’s 80-year-old silos were repaired last year, and Simitian asked about permits. Onciano said the department’s initial finding was that permits were not needed for the repairs, but she would confirm within the week.

The plant’s cement kiln overheated in 2019 and sustained damage due to improper installation of refractory bricks. It is currently not being used.

Potential sale?

Adding intrigue to Lehigh’s status are rumors of a potential sale of the huge property and a curious comment last month from Dominik von Achten, CEO of Lehigh’s parent company, HeidelbergCement of Germany, about “mothballing” the cement plant.

“You know that we have switched our strategy already in parts of the U.S. and notably up on the West Coast with the current mothballing of the Permanente plant, where we switched imports,” he said in a March 18 call with financial investors. “If I look at our results, that has not hurt the results. It has rather improved quite significantly.”

Lehigh’s environmental director Erika Guerra relayed the company’s position on its local operations and clarified the “mothballing” comment.

“Due to the business interruption of the global pandemic, the cement kiln has not been operating,” Guerra said in a statement. “However, we have continued to sell material to the market through a mix of reserves and imports. How and when we will continue operations has not yet been determined.”

Guerra said there are no current plans to sell the property.

“We understand that there are market rumors circulating regarding a potential sale,” she noted. “It is our long-standing practice not to comment on market rumors, which by their nature are speculative and uncertain. We are not planning any changes that will affect the ownership or operation of the Permanente site.”

As for von Achten’s comment, Guerra offered: “During the pandemic, the mix of imports and local supply has allowed us to serve the local markets and maintain our bottom line. This was not a forward-looking statement about how we may do so in the future, but instead a comment on how we have managed during the pandemic period.”

Vested rights

For decades, Lehigh has harvested limestone and aggregate, providing for as much as 50% of the Bay Area’s cement needs. As a plant surrounded closely by residential development, its operations have been especially scrutinized.

With mining in the area dating back to the early 20th century and the cement plant’s opening (as Kaiser Permanente) in 1939, Lehigh has vested mining rights that preclude use permits other than the one issued with the initial cement plant’s opening. However, it’s subjected to reclamation plans that dictate how the company will reclaim impacted land.

At the same time, such plans offer an opportunity for expansion, as is the case with the latest general plan amendment proposed in 2019. Plans include importing fill from outside the quarry, resulting in more than 600 truck trips a day; digging a second pit in a 30-acre area; decreasing a ridge crest by 100 feet, violating a 1972 ridgeline protection agreement; and increasing the reclamation plan area by 73.4 acres. As county planners worked to determine whether Lehigh’s vested rights applied to its new proposals, the company sued the department in February claiming the county was unduly delaying the application process. The company and county are working to resolve issues over scope for work and payment for an environmental impact report.

In the meantime, fines continue to accumulate for Lehigh, most recently a $60,000 penalty levied by the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board for discharging 5.25 million gallons of chlorinated water into Permanente Creek. The fines stem from discharging events in March 2020 and last January. Along with the fines, the company must complete a selenium fish tissue monitoring study.

Note: The article has been updated to correct an error in the former name of the cement plant.

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