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May 02, 2013

Steelhead in Santa Clara: Loma Prieta Chapter Wins Legal Clean-Water Victory

Lehigh-SW-cement-quarryAerial view of the western end of Lehigh Southwest Cement's Permanente Quarry in Cupertino, Ca. The run-off channel at the top of the slope, which flows north into Hale Creek and Permanente Creek, can be clearly seen. Photo courtesy of Jeff Couperus.

By Rachele Huennekens

Nothing fishy about it: last week, the Sierra Club's Loma Prieta Chapter negotiated a milestone agreement for clean water and healthy fish habitat in Santa Clara County, California. 

The Sierra Club reached a multi-million dollar legal settlement with two California-based subsidiaries of Lehigh Heidelburg Cement Group, Lehigh Southwest Cement Co. and Hanson Permanente Cement, Inc., that will curb selenium pollution and restore a waterway called Permanente Creek for fish and wildlife.

Permanente Creek flows for 13 miles through the hills above Cupertino, California, into the San Francisco Bay, and is habitat for red-legged frogs, deer, birds and other wildlife. Steelhead trout -- a popular species with anglers -- once made Permanente Creek their home.

Yet tests by the Sierra Club and the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board had revealed levels of selenium more than ten times the allowable standard in Permanente Creek and Rancho San Antonio County Park, downstream from Lehigh's quarry pit discharges. At elevated levels, selenium is a toxic pollutant that can cause reproductive failure and deformities in fish and other forms of aquatic life. California and federal regulators have listed Permanente Creek as an "impaired water body."

"Today's settlement is a great victory for this beleaguered creek," said Loma Prieta Chapter Chair Melissa Hippard. "The Sierra Club looks forward to working with Lehigh to make the water safe again for fish and wildlife, and for Santa Clara County residents to enjoy."

Reed-Zars-sampling-waterSierra Club attorney Reed Zars taking a water sample from Pond 13. Photo courtesy of Reed Zars.

After an intense period of litigation, followed by months of negotiation. Sierra Club attorneys Reed Zars and George Hays filed a consent decree with the United State District Court for the Northern District of California, San Jose Division, requiring the Lehigh cement companies to cut their discharges of selenium and other toxic water pollutants into Permanente Creek within the next two and a half years, and to restore approximately 3.5 miles of Permanente Creek degraded by quarry mining overburden and wastes. As part of its restoration, the company will provide for fish migration by constructing step pools, removing mining-related sediments and stabilizing landslide-prone hillsides

"We commend Lehigh for taking the high road and agreeing to restore Permanente Creek," said Zars.

The clean-up comes with a big price tag: the Santa Clara County Planning Department estimated that selenium reduction technology for Lehigh's quarry pit discharge will cost $31-127 million, and Lehigh estimates that the stream restoration work will cost $10-12 million.

The settlement between Lehigh and the Sierra Club awaits federal court approval, after a 45-day review and comment period by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 

As Loma Prieta Chapter members celebrate their victory, they look forward to the next opportunity to restore and protect watersheds in the southern San Francisco Bay Area.

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