Taking Action to Acquire, Protect, and Restore Lehigh Quarry

Lehigh Quarry Photo
Photo Credit: Jitze Couperus

For the past century, Lehigh Quarry has been the site of a limestone mining operation and cement plant that has ravaged more than 800 acres of land in the hills outside Cupertino, and indirectly damaged much more land near Rancho San Antonio Park. Now Santa Clara County has a chance to acquire, protect, and restore this property as greenspace for people and wildlife.

The First Step: Staff to Research Options for Buying Lehigh Property

Last month, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors took a dramatic – if preliminary – step to fix the century-long devastation at Lehigh Quarry. The supervisors directed staff to research the possibility of buying the quarry and cement plant and restoring the environment. While this is only a first step, it can reverse a potentially expanding threat of further environmental damage by Lehigh and start the County on the path to the largest environmental restoration (other than Bay wetlands) that it is ever likely to accomplish.

Green Foothills strongly supported the referral by Supervisor Simitian that led to the supervisors’ decision for staff to begin a 90-day process to consider options for buying the property. We appeared at a press conference organized by Supervisor Simitian, co-authored a joint letter signed by environmental groups and the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe, mobilized our supporters in an Action Alert, and testified at the February 15 hearing. Thank you to the more than 180 Green Foothills’ supporters who responded to our call to action and submitted emails to the Supervisors in favor of the referral. The result was a unanimous decision by the supervisors to support the referral.

Lehigh Threatens Massive Expansion, County Considers Buyout

Lehigh Quarry, through the decades also called Hanson Quarry and Kaiser Permanente Quarry, is the oldest and by far the largest operating quarry in Santa Clara County. The quarry has devastated hundreds of acres of land and created major and illegal water pollution problems in Permanente Creek. The associated cement plant – which processes the mined limestone to create cement – has been one of the most significant sources of pollution, including greenhouse gasses, in California.

Recently, Lehigh applied for a massive expansion of its quarry operations. It proposes enlarging the main pit under the guise of stabilizing the ridgeline it damaged and creating a new mining pit south of the current operations. This would destroy another 60 acres of habitat, facilitate the resumption of cement plant operations (the plant is currently closed), and significantly delay Lehigh’s legal obligation to restore the land once operations cease. This proposal would change the environmental reclamation plan they have already agreed to, which would close the quarry in stages with full completion by 2032.

Green Foothills has watchdogged Lehigh Quarry and worked to limit its damage for decades. While we do not oppose all quarry operations, this quarry and cement plant’s long history of environmental violations, threatening both nature and human health, put it in a different category.

The Solution is to Buy and Restore – But How?

Lehigh owns 3,510 acres at the property. While the County’s existing reclamation plan, not yet modified by Lehigh’s proposal, is to end quarry operations in 2032, that does not transfer ownership to the public. It also does not affect the cement plant, which could operate beyond 2032.

Buying the entire property is a challenging undertaking. Lehigh has significant financial obligations related to cleaning up the property. It acknowledges its obligation to reclaim the land destroyed at the quarry. It is also quite likely that Lehigh will need to clean up toxic contamination from the cement plant.

One approach for the County and other interested agencies like Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District is to contribute to clean-up costs as payment for the acquisition. Other funding from local, state, and federal sources should also be explored.

We look forward to the results of staff’s research, while recognizing this could be a long process. We should not underestimate the challenge but we welcome this opportunity. Eight hundred acres of Lehigh land is currently a moonscape of development, with another several hundred acres of buffer land also affected, not to mention air quality, water quality, and quality of life impacts from the plant and quarry. Turning this moonscape into greenscape, into restored open space for people and wildlife, is a worthy cause for us all to pursue.

As soon as the opportunity arises, we will ask for your support in urging the Supervisors to buy and protect Lehigh’s land for open space.

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