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Water Toxins to Cost Cement Plant $7.5M

Friday, May 1, 2015

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SAN FRANCISCO—A California cement maker will spend more than $7.5 million to settle federal allegations that it routinely dumped toxic substances into a tributary of the San Francisco Bay.

A federal settlement agreement requires the plant, owned by Hanson Permanente Cement Inc. and operated by Lehigh Southwest Cement Co., to reduce toxic discharges of selenium and other metals into Permanente Creek, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Justice, and State of California jointly announced Wednesday (April 29).

The facility, in Cupertino, CA, will pay $2.55 million in civil penalties and spend more than $5 million to install wastewater treatment and other improvements to prevent future violations.

EPA Lehigh settlement
Photos: EPA

According to the EPA, the facility's discharges frequently exceeded standards for total suspended solids, total dissolved solids, turbidity and pH. In some cases the discharges exceeded standards for mercury, hexavalent chromium, nickel and thallium.

"This settlement holds Lehigh Cement accountable for its actions and will prevent future toxic discharges," said Attorney General Kamala D. Harris.

The proposed consent decree, filed concurrently with the complaint in U.S. District Court, is subject to a 30-day public comment period and court approval.

Millions of Gallons Every Day

The settlement addresses violations of the Clean Water Act by Lehigh and Hanson. According to the EPA, the facility routinely discharged excessive selenium into the creek, a tributary of the San Francisco Bay, in violation of Lehigh's permits.

High concentrations of selenium are toxic to fish and other aquatic life, as well as to the birds and other animals that eat them.

Selenium is a naturally occurring element in limestone and other rock formation. From at least 2009 to 2014, Lehigh's limestone mine and cement plant discharged millions of gallons of quarry process water and stormwater into the creek on a daily basis, the EPA said.

The discharges frequently exceeded standards for total suspended solids, total dissolved solids, turbidity and pH. In some cases, the discharges also exceeded standards for mercury, hexavalent chromium, nickel and thallium.

Lehigh has installed an interim treatment system, and a permanent system will be completed by 2017. Other facility improvements will be made to remove sediment from stormwater runoff, officials said.

Lehigh Hanson

Lehigh pond 4A (pictured) receives all quarry process wastewater and discharges to Permanente Creek, a tributary of San Franciso Bay. The creek is considered "impaired" for selenium.

"EPA and California are working together to enforce the Clean Water Act and help restore San Francisco Bay," said Jared Blumenfield, EPA's Regional Administrator for the Pacific Southwest.

"Every action we take to remove selenium and other toxic metals improves water quality and leads to a healthier and more resilient Bay."

'Impaired' Water

Permanente Creek is listed as "impaired" for selenium under the Clean Water Act. "Impaired" waters are those that are too polluted or degraded to meet water quality standards.

According to the EPA, the creek provides an important habitat for California red-legged frogs, a species listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The settlement and cleanup will "help protect the fragile and life-sustaining ecosystem of San Francisco Bay," said Assistant Attorney General John C. Cruden.

The upgrades and enforcement action "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," Cruden said.

Bruce Wolfe, executive officer for the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Board, said efforts would continue to regulate water quality related to the facility.

   

Tagged categories: Cement; Clean Water Act; Enforcement; Environmental Controls; EPA; North America

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