Lehigh Southwest Cement Plant in Cupertino, California is a subsidiary of Heidelberg Cement Group in Germany. Lehigh has been operating in violation of the Federal Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, Federal Mining Safety Laws, and the California State Surface Mine and Reclamation Act. Numerous Notice of Violations (NOVs) have been issued from various regulatory agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), US Department of Labor, California Regional Water Quality Control Board (CRWQCB), the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) and Santa Clara County. With these violations as well as the amount of pollution Lehigh creates, Lehigh’s Cupertino plant would not be allowed to operate in Germany.
On top of this, Lehigh is the only cement plant in operation in the United States without a central smokestack, which would disperse the pollution quickly and provide for accurate monitoring. Furthermore, it is the only cement plant in the nation that is adjacent to a major metropolitan area, impacting the health and safety of 7.2 million San Francisco Bay Area residents.
On March 10, 2010, the EPA issued a notice of violation to Lehigh alleging that it violated the Federal Clean Air Act by emitting over 5,072 tons of oxides nitrogen (NOx) and over 2106.8 tons of sulfur dioxide (SO2) a year. This is a significant violation. The maximum fine for this kind of violation can be hundreds of millions dollars. Lehigh is still currently negotiating with the EPA for a settlement. The negotiations began more than three years ago and pending a settlement, the pollution continues and we continue to breathe the polluted air that Lehigh emits.
Also, Lehigh has been illegally dumping millions of gallons of selenium-polluted water into Permanente Creek for decades. The selenium-polluted water is 12 to 16 times higher than the Federal Clean Water maximum limit. Sierra Club sued Lehigh over this violation. The lawsuit was settled on April 24, 2013. Lehigh agreed to gradually reduce the dumping of selenium and to restore Permanente Creek. The estimated cost is in the tens of millions of dollars.
The question is whether or not Lehigh will do as it has promised to do according to the settlement. On mercury pollution alone, Lehigh’s self reported numbers were about 500 lbs a year for the past ten years. The EPA’s new absolute maximum limit for this cement plant is 88 lbs a year. First, Lehigh told the community that it is impossible to remove mercury pollution. Following increasing pressure from the community in 2011, Lehigh held a press conference and announced they were able to cut 90% of the mercury from its emissions. Since September of 2013 Lehigh’s emissions of mercury should be 55lb/million tons of clinker, however the newly installed monitoring equipment shows that the emissions are about 20% over this limit. Prior to September, Lehigh was operating the plant at 130 lb/million tons of clinker. Clearly Lehigh has had the ability to reduce its emissions all during 2013, but only began to do so when the regulations required it. In sharp contrast, the worst mercury-polluting Heidelberg Cement Plant in Germany only emits 70 lbs a year. Germany would not allow Lehigh, as it is operating in the US, to operate in Germany, based on its mercury pollution alone.
Lehigh gets away with all these violations and does not abide by U. S. laws because Lehigh knows how to work around the political, media and legal systems in the United States. Lehigh hired former Cupertino Mayor, Ms. Sandra James, as its public relations manager. Lehigh also hires top gun legal firms to deploy their ‘delaying and intimidating’ tactics through lawsuits and negotiations. Lehigh also hires top notch media firms to send out nice brochures and flyers for propaganda.
Lehigh pays for lobbyists, propaganda firms and lawyers to get away with its violations instead of conducting a clean business in the United States. It is cheaper this way for Lehigh. Unfortunately, it costs us much more for our health and the environment. Who is paying for Lehigh’s profit? The answer is this: the public’s health and the environment.