The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors has directed the Planning Commission to move forward with a public hearing to consider revoking or amending the use permit that allows Lehigh Cement Plant to operate in the foothills of Santa Clara County.
The board’s action on Dec. 13 was based on a violations report that identified more than 2,135 violations and millions of dollars in fines at the 3,500-acre site between 2012 and 2021. The review was conducted at the request of County Supervisor Joe Simitian earlier this year.
“We know from a careful look at the last 10 years that there have been more than 2,135 violations of various federal, state, and local laws and regulations – air pollution, water pollution, noise, traffic, dust, chemicals – all of this is well-documented,” said Simitian. “If there have been violations of the conditions of approval, or there are behaviors that constitute a public nuisance in terms of public health and safety, then we’re going to have to either revoke or amend Lehigh’s use permit. If we can negotiate something with Lehigh, that’s the best of all possible worlds. It means we don’t have to go through that process. But we’ve got to take action. No question about it.”
In November 2022, Lehigh announced it would not restart production at the cement plant, opting instead, according to a Lehigh press statement, to “evaluate the long-term strategy” for the facility while continuing to use the site for other operations, such as serving as a distribution location for the company. Describing the announcement an “encouraging step in the right direction,” Simitian said he wanted to explore steps ensuring that the closure of the cement plant is permanent and legally binding.
“It was really good news when the folks at Lehigh said they were planning to quit the operation of their cement plant,” said Simitian. “But the question now is: how can we be sure that’s real and lasting?”
The revocation or amendment of Lehigh’s use permit would ensure a lasting and legally binding end to the operation of the cement plant, said Simitian.
He said he expected the Planning Commission to consider permit revocation or modification, “sometime in 2023, unless we can get a negotiated agreement with Lehigh.” Simitian said his goals for the site remain the same:
- Close the Lehigh cement plant;
- Stop mining the quarry; and,
- Begin the restoration and reclamation of the property.
Simitian said he sees the permit revocation/modification conversation as, “an opportunity to envision a new future for the site.”
At Simitian’s suggestion – and after considering the violations report – the supervisors also directed county staff and county counsel to explore whether any action could be taken to limit or end mining at the quarry (which is not governed by the cement plant use permit) under a public nuisance theory.
“Now that we’ve stepped up on the cement plant and feel like we know where we’re headed, we also need to be asking ourselves: what about that quarry?” said Simitian. “Ultimately the plan is for that site to be restored and reclaimed. I want to make sure that we have a plan on the books that is real and practical, and funded by the folks at Lehigh, so the cost of restoring the site to its original condition isn’t borne by the public.”