On Sept. 19, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District's board of directors voted unanimously to approve new regulations for existing Portland cement manufacturing facilities such as Lehigh.
The rules--known as Regulation 9, Rule 13--include strict emissions limits for nitrogen oxides, particulate matter and toxic air contaminants, such as mercury, benzene and hydrochloric acid. The rules also include new continuous emissions monitoring, record-keeping, reporting and operational requirements, such as dust mitigation measures.
"This action will significantly reduce toxic air pollution and better protect community health in the neighborhoods near Lehigh," said Jack Broadbent, executive officer of the air district. "This new Portland cement rule is the strongest of its kind in the country."
Operating since 1939, the Lehigh Cement facility is located in unincorporated Santa Clara County, west of Cupertino. The facility excavates limestone from an on-site quarry for use in cement manufacturing. Mining at the site dates back to the 1880s.
The new rules will match or exceed the standards recommended by the EPA set for implementation in 2015. The air district states that the rules are expected to lead to very significant reductions in toxic emissions at the Lehigh facility, such as a 93 percent reduction in mercury emissions, a 90 percent reduction in benzene and a 70 percent drop in hydrochloric acid.
Under the new rule, all emissions at the facility must be monitored and must not pose a significant threat to the neighboring community, as demonstrated by a health risk assessment.
Lehigh representatives told the Courier that the air district's rules align with older EPA standards originally announced for 2013. A new round of stricter regulations have been proposed for 2015 to give the cement industry more time to research, analyze, acquire and install the necessary equipment.
Lehigh also stated that while the EPA considers an industry-wide, two-year extension for compliance, such an extension will not be granted by the air district to Lehigh Permanente.
"If unchanged by BAAQMD, their rule with a 2013 compliance date will put the [Lehigh Permanente] facility at a significant disadvantage with the rest of the cement industry. We have communicated that to the district," Tim Matz, Lehigh's director of environmental affairs, wrote in an email.
Since 2010, the cement facility has installed an activated carbon injection system to curb mercury emissions and a hydrated lime injection system, which reduces visible emissions from the facility.
BAAQMD is the regional agency responsible for monitoring stationary sources of air pollution in nine Bay Area counties. Lehigh is the only cement plant under the air district's jurisdiction.
Portland cement manufacturing involves the intense heating of raw materials, such as limestone and iron, in order to fuse them together to produce cement clinker. The clinker is then ground to a fine powder and mixed with gypsum and other additives to produce cement, according to the air district.
The new rules come nearly a year after they were first pitched to the public. A workshop on the rules was held on Dec. 12 at Monta Vista High School in Cupertino. Some residents demanded that Lehigh be held to the same federal standards as new facilities.
"The new BAAQMD regulations make Lehigh Permanente the most tightly regulated cement plant in the nation," County Supervisor Liz Kniss said in a statement. "A 93 percent reduction in mercury is very dramatic."
Kniss also serves on the air district board. Lehigh's location in unincorporated county land falls under her jurisdiction.
BAAQMD staff said that it is more cost effective to enforce such rules on new facilities than to have an established facility such as Lehigh go through the immense financial burden of redoing major portions of its facility. Staff advised that the cement plant, built in 1939 and last modified in the 1980s, did not qualify for other rules that apply to new facilities.
Lehigh Cement will need to spend more than $35 million to comply with the new Portland Cement Rule and the regulations linked to a Title V permit recently issued by BAAQMD, according to the air district.
Opponents argue that more regulations need to be enforced given the cement facility's close proximity to residents.
The rules "are an improvement over the existing situation, but I believe more protective regulations are in order," said Dr. Gary Latshaw, a frequent Lehigh critic who serves as chair of the air quality committee of the Loma Prieta Chapter of the Sierra Club. "This is the fifth largest cement plant in the country and the only one situated near a large metropolitan area."
The Sept. 19 board meeting also saw the board direct district staff to evaluate the possibility of more stringent Portland cement manufacturing emission standards that could be implemented in the future.