Santa Clara County and the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District on Thursday proposed to join forces to protect a portion of ridgetop in the Santa Cruz Mountains from mining.
Known as Permanente Ridge, the mountain top is a buffer from the Lehigh Southwest Cement Company's operations. Lehigh wants to amend its 2012 Reclamation Plan for Lehigh Permanente Quarry to increase mining. As part of the amendment, the proposal asks to disturb an area of the ridge that is about 100 vertical feet in height — about as high as a 10-story building — and 4,000 feet across. That's the equivalent of an area containing 15 million cubic yards of earth that would, for scale, fill about 1.8 million regular-sized cement trucks if it were removed, county Supervisor Joe Simitian said.
The proposal would effectively "chop the top off" the roughly 20-acre easement, which is protected by a nearly 50-year-old agreement.
"That easement is a matter of law. It is a protection for that hillside," Simitian said.
To help strengthen their opposition, county supervisors will vote this Tuesday, June 22, on whether to put together an agreement that would grant Midpen enforcement powers over the 20-acre Ridgeline Protection Easement. Midpen's board of directors also will take up discussion on the alliance with the county during its meeting on Wednesday, June 23.
The 1972 Ridgeline Protection Easement was made between Lehigh's predecessor, Kaiser Cement and Gypsum Corporation, and the county. It forbids quarrying and mining in the easement area, a roughly 3,000-foot-long section, and requires Kaiser and its successors to maintain portions of the ridgeline at specific elevations. It also allows the county to enter the property for inspections "from time to time" regarding preservation of the ridgeline easement.
Granting Midpen enforcement rights would give the county more "eyes on the site and boots on the ground," Simitian said. It would add a second line of defense in the effort to have Lehigh honor its commitment to the grant deed, Simitian added.
Midpen has legal expertise related to land rights and management and owns property that is adjacent to the easement: the district's Rancho San Antonio Open Space Preserve in Cupertino, which has more than 800,000 visitors a year, Midpen board member Yoriko Kishimoto said. Permanente Ridge provides a natural screen from the quarry, helps limit dust from mining operations from spilling into the open space and provides habitat for wildlife, she said.
In its May 2019 proposal to amend its 2012 Reclamation Plan for Lehigh Permanente Quarry, Lehigh said it wants to mine additional limestone from the area and to cut back the slope for stabilization along its north highwall section of the quarry. It also sought to modify the easement agreement to accomplish its goals.
The company wants to expand excavation of the north highwall of the North Quarry Pit; expand surface mining in the new 30-acre Rock Plant Reserve Area south of the North Quarry Pit; reactivate use of the quarry’s existing rock crusher; and haul unprocessed aggregate to the adjacent Stevens Creek Quarry through an internal haul road. The expanded surface mining activities would increase its total production by approximately 600,000 tons, according to a December 2020 memo from the county Department of Planning and Development.
The county sent Lehigh a "completion" letter in August 2019 indicating the application for the 2012 Reclamation Plan Amendment could move to an environmental review, but that process has stalled, with both sides pointing blame on each other.
A debate over 'vested' mining rights
In 2011, the county made a "vested rights" determination regarding which of Lehigh's lands can be mined. Lehigh wants to expand its surface mining operations to include unprocessed greenstone aggregate, a point of contention between the company and the county. The county maintains that Lehigh needs a vested rights consistency hearing to define whether the proposed off-site sale of unprocessed aggregate and intensification in production are consistent with the company's vested rights for surface mining under the 2012 Reclamation Plan.
Lehigh has said that the 2011 determination is adequate. The county, however, said the determination focused on the "geographic extent" of Lehigh’s vested right, but it did not delineate the "substantive scope" of that right, meaning which surface mining and related activities are consistent with the vested right, according to the December 2020 memo.
Lehigh claims the county is violating provisions of the California Environmental Quality Act by unilaterally modifying a private project. The company filed a lawsuit against the county in Santa Clara County Superior Court this past February.
The county claims Lehigh has been dragging its heels on moving the environmental impact report (EIR) process forward. According to the county, on Oct. 28 and Nov. 13 of 2020, Lehigh submitted letters to the Department of Planning and Development declining to provide comments on the EIR's "scope of work" or funds to initiate preparation of the report. Lehigh claimed the scope of work did not reflect the project it submitted because the EIR proposed evaluating the environmental impacts of mining activities that would be considered by the Board of Supervisors at the vested rights consistency hearing.
Lehigh wanted the planning department to limit the EIR scope only to the proposed 2019 Reclamation Plan Amendment application, not to have the EIR evaluate the results of the county's vested rights consistency determination, according to the county's December 2020 memo.
Who's to blame?
Erika Guerra, director of environmental and land resource management for parent company Lehigh Hanson's West Region, disputed the county's claims in a written statement on June 18.
"While Lehigh has not had the opportunity to review the specifics of the County’s proposal to involve the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, we value the expertise that MOSD (sic) can provide to the technical review of our reclamation plan application and hope that the process can begin in earnest."
Despite the county's statements made to the contrary, Guerra said the company has proposed solutions to the ridgeline through its current application.
"The County is blocking the application by attempting to challenge its own final determination of our long-established vested rights, which were also upheld by the Courts. The County must stop delaying the robust environmental review and community outreach process we have initiated and move forward on our application, she said.
"Lehigh agrees with the importance of protecting our precious natural resources, including the ridgeline in our Quarry. We have demonstrated this commitment by submitting an amendment that will preserve the easement," she said.
"To be clear, the easement will remain," she added.
But the ridgetop would not be left undisturbed. Lehigh has "proposed solutions (that) were developed by geotechnical experts to preserve it for the long term and include enhanced revegetation and stability," she said.
Eddie Venancio, business representative of the Teamsters Local 853, and Jim Riley, district representative of Operating Engineers Local 3, said during Thursday's press conference that Lehigh has scaled down operations and required less labor, which adds more questions as to why the company now wants to expand mining at the quarry.
The parent company, Lehigh Hanson, part of the global Heidelberg Cement Group, sold all of its western states operations to Martin Marietta Materials Inc. in late May for $2.3 billion in cash, except for the Permanente site, the union leaders noted.
A request sent to the company for verification of whether its Cupertino quarry operations were excluded from the sale has not been returned.