Los Altos City Council Discusses the Lehigh Cement Co. Issue
On January 25th, the Los Altos City Council met to discuss the Permanente Quarry/Lehigh SW Cement Company in the hills south of Los Altos. The cement company has been in operation since 1939 and provides a large amount of cement used in the Bay Area (Note: cement makes up about 10% of concrete). The company mines limestone and then heats it up to very high temperatures to manufacture the cement. When doing this, various materials are released, including mercury.
According to the group NoToxicAir.org, this cement factory releases various chemicals including 1,284 pounds of mercury/year which is the 2nd highest of any cement plant in the US and is over ten times the 90 pounds/year recommended by the EPA. These chemicals periodically float up over Los Altos and Los Altos Hills when the wind blows from the south. In addition, the quarry discharges water from one of its settling ponds into Permanente creek which flows past Loyola Corners and eventually into Stevens Creek and the bay. Los Altos residents last observed such a release back in November, 2010. The cement factory has scores of federal, state, and county violations against it, some of which have been resolved and some have been outstanding for some time.
In addition, the existing quarry is running out of limestone and Lehigh wants to open a new 210 acre quarry above it. This is further up the hill and would be very visible from the surrounding area and also be above the Permanente Creek watershed.
The Los Altos council wants to 1) understand if Lehigh is in fact violating existing standards and 2) if its operations pose a possible health risk to Los Altos residents. After discussion, the Council voted unanimously to investigate the allegations, to determine what is factual and not, and if the operations pose any risks to the city’s residents. The Council will also be coordinating its investigation and response with Gary Waldeck of the Los Altos Hill Council. An ad hoc subcommittee consisting of Mayor Packard and Councilmember David Casas will lead the effort with the help of city staff.
GreenTown commends this decision and the Council’s willingness to coordinate with the Los Altos Hills council . As Mayor Packard said during the meeting, “We say that Los Altos is a great place to live and raise a family. But air and water quality has impacts on whether we are a great place to live.”
The only concern I see is that there was no timetable to the Council’s resolution. There will be multiple county hearings about the quarry this year, the first being February 8th. Bill Almon, the leader of QuarryNo.com believes the big decision will be in November when the county supervisors decide whether or not to grant Lehigh a 20 year permit to operate the new 210 acre quarry. It would be best if Los Altos and Los Altos Hills concludes their investigation and if negative, presents a resolution to the county supervisors before any such long-lasting decision.
For additional information:
There are two groups focused on the quarry:
Joe Eyre Chair, GreenTown Los Altos Water Stewardship Committee