Cupertino’s Lehigh cement plant and quarry criticized for mercury emissions

A workplace shooting put Cupertino's Lehigh Southwest cement plant in the national headlines in 2011. Now the plant is taking criticism for the harsh effects producing cement can have on the environment.
Sandy James
Former Cupertino Mayor Sandra L. James sits at her customary table at Hobee’s in Cupertino. James now represents the Lehigh Southwest Cement Company. (Photo: Anna Li/ Peninsula Press)

Despite retiring from city politics in 2005, Sandra L. James hasn’t lost her charm or grace in deflecting difficult questions. James, the former mayor of Cupertino, currently represents one of the most controversial companies in the South Bay: Lehigh Southwest Cement Company.

James is the public relations and community affairs manager for Lehigh. She is undoubtedly an asset for the cement company, which is desperately in need of a glossy figurehead deft at broaching tough questions, unflattering letters to the editor and scathing criticism from the surrounding community concerned about the plant’s environmental footprint.

In fact Barry Chang, a member of Cupertino’s City Council calls her work “a betrayal of the public’s trust.”

“She’s doing a good job for them,” Chang said. “She uses all her relationships and all her influence for Lehigh. That’s why they could cover up what Lehigh was doing.”

James and Chang have been fighting the same issues for years – on opposing sides of the battle. Chang won his seat on the Cupertino City Council in 2009 thanks to a platform with promises to address local residents’ environmental concerns about the cement plant. On his website, Chang listed four main interests, three of which related to Lehigh and one which touched on Apple’s proposed new campus that is still in negotiations. Asked about Chang’s contentions, James declined to respond.

Lehigh hired James in June 2008, three years after she left the City Council, to become an independent entitlement consultant.

James, who hasn’t applied for a job since the 1970s, has an effusive, bubbly personality that wins over even her most reluctant opponents.

Gary Waldeck, mayor of Los Altos Hills, said he may not agree with what James does for a living, but he still respects her. Her “people skills,” as he put it, come in handy when James is lobbying city officials like Waldeck. She sends them information intended to show that Lehigh is complying with regulatory standards like the federal Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act.

Still, Lehigh seems to always be in a sticky situation. It’s almost inevitable because the process of creating cement leaves harsh consequences in the surrounding environment.

Currently, the cement plant sits next to a giant hole, half a mile wide and a thousand feet deep, in the hills overlooking Cupertino. The hole is the Permanente quarry – a dusty red mining operation that supplies limestone to the cement plant. Lehigh owns both the quarry and the plant – maximizing efficiency and minimizing costs.

Once extracted, the limestone is mixed with other soils, clays and petroleum coke, a substance rich in carbon. When this mixture is heated to three thousand degrees Fahrenheit in the cement kiln, it becomes what the industry calls “clinker.” It looks like dusty, grey pebbles of various sizes. Add gypsum to the clinker, and it creates cement, explained Gary Latshaw, the chair of Air Quality at the Loma Prieta Chapter of the Sierra Club serving Santa Clara County. Latshaw is also a full-time professor of physics and math at San Jose City College. The Cupertino resident spends personal time researching the environmental impacts of Lehigh’s operations. He recently published a report for the Sierra Club about the health implications and costs of running the quarry and plant.

The cement-making process casts a dark shadow over the plant because heating the limestone releases mercury in the air and green house gases come from fossil fuel combustion. Concerned citizens, often with Chang as their mouthpiece, argue that Lehigh is releasing the extremely toxic chemicals into the environment, poisoning the air everyone breathes and contaminating drinking water in Stevens Creek.

Brian Bateman, the director of compliance and enforcement division of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, said that Lehigh can’t help that mercury is embedded in the limestone, which is the primary raw ingredient used to produce cement.

As long as limestone is “in there and it’s going through a high temperature process which is necessary to produce cement, you’re going to have some emissions,” Bateman said. Lehigh has stacks with vents that filter the emissions to reduce pollutants and toxins, but there is always a marginal amount that leaves the plant and enters the air.

The Air District, a state agency, and the United States Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, are two of the many regulatory agencies that monitor Lehigh very closely.

According to Bateman, high temperatures in the kiln vaporize the mercury. Once it mixes with oxygen and other chemicals, it reacts to become methylmercury, the most common form of mercury in the environment but also believed to be more toxic than other forms, based on reports from the Center of Disease Control and Prevention, which claims on its website that methylmercury finds its way to the brain, binds to tissues more easily and stays for longer than other forms of mercury, making it more dangerous.

The EPA claims on its website that methylmercury impairs cognitive thinking, fine motor, visual, attention and memory skills in children who were exposed to the toxin while in the womb.

The scariest part is that airborne and waterborne pollutants and toxins like mercury can sneak into the air and water and travel effectively throughout the Valley, making contamination virtually impossible to control.

Consequently, agencies have tightened regulations to ensure Lehigh minimizes emissions from the plant.

In 2011, Lehigh installed a new system that injects activated carbon granules to which mercury vapor adheres. The carbon is collected in the dust filters and baghouses. That’s supposed to remove particulate matter and the mercury from the gas that is eventually let out to mingle with the air.

These improvements reduce the amount of mercury emitted by up to 95 percent, Bateman asserted. The Air District and many other regulatory agencies continue to monitor the air with testing systems to keep a close eye on the amount of mercury emitted, Bateman added.

Last year, Lehigh installed a hydrated lime injection system to curb the hydrochloric acid mist, which the company said in a newsletter, has already reduced visible emissions from the facility.

But Chang doesn’t think that’s good enough. He says he is concerned for the health of his constituents and for years has been trying to convince his fellow council members to discuss the issues, to no avail.

“This is a public health issue. It impacted residents a lot,” Chang said. “I don’t understand why they don’t even put it on the agenda to have a healthy rebuttal and debate on it.”

“The bottom line is we meet all the regulations,” James said. She is adamant that Lehigh hasn’t done anything wrong. “We’ve always met the regulations or exceeded them. We’re ahead of time on all the new regulations.”

“They’re lying,” Chang countered. “They do not meet every EPA requirement. They get notices of violation from EPA,” he said, as well as “from the state Water Quality Control Board,” the State Mining and Geology Board, Santa Clara County and from the Air District. James and Lehigh representatives declined to respond to Chang’s comment.

At the moment, Bateman said he agrees with James. “The current status is they’re in compliance” with the recommended levels of mercury in the air, Batman said. He emphasized the fact that zero levels of mercury are impossible — an ideal scenario that would exist only in a perfect world. “The health risks from the facility are within levels that are considered not to be significant,” he said. “They do not require any further action other than continuing to track their emissions on an ongoing basis.”

However, Lehigh has had a history of violation notices when it did not comply with regulations. Most problems were fixed within 24 hours, Bateman said.

Mercury is only one of many chemicals that the Sierra Club complains about. Greenhouse gas emissions from the plant also trouble concerned citizens.

According to a staff report from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District published July 2012, Lehigh “represents the largest single source of nitrogen oxide emissions in the District without modern add-on controls.”

In addition, Bateman said, the plant emits sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, particulate matter and toxic air contaminants – all of which cause detrimental health effects and hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more, in health care costs.

Much of the greenhouse gases come from burning petroleum coke, a byproduct of the oil refinery process, as the primary fuel source to heat the kilns. The metallic-looking, black-grey granules are not much cleaner as a fuel source than the coal that Lehigh used to burn, but they are much cheaper.

At least petroleum coke is a step above the Michelin, Goodyear and Pirelli tires, which the plant burned in the 1990s as an experiment to see if it could substitute rubber tires for a portion of coal. Perhaps even more surprising was that the plant conducted this test legally with an experimental permit approved by the Air District.

Tom Chizmadia, Senior Vice President, Government Affairs, Public Relations and Sustainability for Lehigh, wrote back in an email when asked for a comment, “It’s important to know that Lehigh remains focused on environmental integrity and compliance. We’re proud are of our history, proud of our workforce, and proud of our recent accomplishments related to emission reductions.”

The cement plant lies on the border of Cupertino and Los Altos in unincorporated Santa Clara County, falling under the jurisdiction of the County’s board of supervisors – a board that Chang believes is sitting complacently in Lehigh’s pockets.

Waldeck, mayor of Los Altos Hills, shared Chang’s suspicions. “It just seems odd that the supervisors have steadily supported their position,” he said during an interview with the Peninsula Press, “on each topic that has come up. It’s almost like a rubber stamp.”

It doesn’t take much digging to find that Lehigh has its fingers in almost all organizations of influence. James is a member, if not a president and co-founder, of an impressive list of organizations including the Chamber of Commerce, Veterans Memorial Foundation, San Jose Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce, Rotary Club and Silicon Valley Leadership Group. Furthermore, Lehigh is a subsidiary of the Lehigh Heidelberg Cement Group headquartered in Germany and one of the largest construction-material companies in North America.

According to the Census Bureau, the U.S. had 148 cement manufacturing businesses in 2007, the most recent economic statistics the Bureau released to date. California had the largest number of cement plants, 26, followed by Texas, 24. The Census Bureau collects information about businesses every five years and the next update of 2012 data is scheduled for this December 2013.

James complained that the Air District placed unfair regulations on the company, causing Lehigh to lose its competitive advantage over other plants that do not have to meet as stringent requirements. Bateman explained that the EPA standards differ from the Air District’s standards. Lehigh meets the EPA’s federal standards but the Air District applies stricter regulations in Northern California that Lehigh must also meet to be operational.

Bateman defended the Air District by saying that the rules for the Bay Area are stricter because the area is more densely inhabited than other areas of the U.S. that have cement plants. Lehigh is in a unique position because it operates in a densely populated area, and it turns out to be the main cement facility in the district’s jurisdiction, which gives the impression that the Air District is singling out the plant. However, Bateman said he believes the Air District is acting in the best interests of the community.

The company is currently embroiled in five different lawsuits, including one from the Sierra Club, which is suing over elevated selenium levels discharged into Permanente Creek and another by the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, which filed suits against the County and Lehigh last November challenging the environmental impact report for a reclamation plan Lehigh submitted and the county recently approved.

Lehigh’s Permanente Quarry was also the site of a shooting that received national news coverage in November 2011 when an employee fatally shot three coworkers and wounded seven others.

James’ position only seems to get more difficult over time. Waldeck noted that the plant used to sit at least five to ten miles away from the main population centers decades ago, but now it’s less than half a mile away.

“I think it is a little unfair that population centers have been allowed to grow that close to the plant,” Waldeck said.

In fact, the cement plant has been around since before the city of Cupertino incorporated. The quarry and cement plant date from 1939, when Henry J. Kaiser founded the Kaiser Permanente Cement Plant to supply the majority of the cement used to construct the Shasta Dam.

Waldeck also said he believes Lehigh produces some of the best cement in the country that helped build significant infrastructure that Californians use every day like roads and freeways.

“But there are still emissions, and there is some small fraction of our constituency that is going to get sick as a result of it,” he said. “That’s something that frankly is avoidable and I’d love to see fixed. One person’s life is not worth that plant.”

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