May 01, 2015

Cement Plant to Cut Toxic Discharges to San Francisco Bay

Company to spend more than $7.5 million for violations at cement facility near Cupertino, Calif.

Clean Water Act EPA Lehigh Cement Plant

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Justice and the state of California announced a settlement requiring the Lehigh cement plant near Cupertino to reduce toxic discharges of selenium and other metals to Permanente Creek, a tributary of San Francisco Bay. The facility, owned by Hanson Permanente Cement Inc. and operated by Lehigh Southwest Cement Co., will spend more than $5 million to install wastewater treatment and make other facility improvements to prevent future violations. The company will also pay $2.55 million in civil penalties to settle the case.

The settlement addresses Lehigh’s and Hanson’s violations of the Clean Water Act. The Cupertino facility routinely discharged excessive selenium into Permanente Creek in violation of Lehigh’s permits from at least 2009 to 2014. The plant’s discharges also routinely exceeded standards for total suspended solids, total dissolved solids, turbidity, and pH, and in some cases exceeded standards for mercury, hexavalent chromium, nickel and thallium.

“Today’s Clean Water Act settlement, done jointly with the state of California, will remove selenium and other toxic substances from Permanente Creek and help protect the fragile and life-sustaining ecosystem of San Francisco Bay,” said Assistant Attorney General John C. Cruden of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Div. “By bringing this older facility up to contemporary standards, and by pushing it to introduce cutting-edge treatment technology, the Department of Justice and our partners are helping create a level playing field, where all industry members are held to the same standards and no company can gain an economic advantage over its competitors by shortchanging environmental compliance.”

Since at least 2009 to 2014, Lehigh’s limestone mine and cement plant discharged millions of gallons of quarry process water and storm water to Permanente Creek daily. These discharges contained thousands of pounds of sediment, and hundreds of pounds of selenium and other toxic metals each year in violation of the federal Clean Water Act. The settlement requires Lehigh to construct an advanced wastewater treatment system to significantly reduce its selenium and other metals discharges. Lehigh already installed an interim treatment system and a permanent system will be completed by 2017. Lehigh will make other facility improvements to remove sediment from its storm water runoff, spending more than $5 million overall to come into compliance.

Selenium is a naturally occurring element in limestone and other rock formations. When discharged at high concentrations to waterways, selenium becomes toxic to fish and other aquatic life, and to birds and other animals that consume selenium-contaminated aquatic organisms. Permanente Creek, to which the Lehigh cement facility discharges, is listed as “impaired” for selenium under the Clean Water Act. The creek provides important habitat for California red-legged frogs, a species listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The proposed Clean Water Act consent decree, filed concurrently with the complaint in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, San Jose division, is subject to a 30-day public comment period and court approval.