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[whitespace] Kaiser Cement cited for polluting Permanente Creek

Cupertino--The Kaiser Cement Company has been put on notice by a state environmental regulatory agency that it needs to stop allowing sediment to cloud Permanente Creek, which runs through the cement manufacturing facility.

In response to the mandate, Kaiser officials said the company has already fixed many of the problems that created the excess runoff. It has also issued a list of additional short- and long-term goals that will help it comply with the agency's clean water requirements.

It is also in the process of preparing a written report to the agency, fully detailing what went wrong that allowed the creek to become dirty.

Because of its response, Kaiser also could avoid paying a hefty fine of up to $10,000 for each day that it failed to notify the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board of the problem.

The gray water was first noticed by Cupertino residents last April after heavy rains washed sediment into the creek from Kaiser's quarrying operation in the Cupertino foothills.

Residents notified the water board, an arm of the California State Environmental Protection Agency, who has kept an eye on the area in the past, and is continuing to do so now.

Officials returned to the creek in May after a dry spell, and again found turbid water coming down the stream. Kaiser initially said the water became polluted after the heavy rains, but that was proved wrong after the May inspection.

In a letter dated Sept. 17, the water board said Kaiser "has polluted and continues to threaten to pollute" the creek, and issued a list of demands including a written report that marks the dates the water was polluted, why the creek became polluted and what the company will do to end the problem.

Additionally, the water board threatened to slap Kaiser with the $10,000-per-day fine, as well as a fee of $10 per gallon of material that was allowed to enter the creek.

Water board officials said the threat of a fine was used to urge action on Kaiser's part, and that it is still considering whether it will levy the fine based on Kaiser's response to the problem.

So far, Kaiser's response has been good, they said, and chances that any fine will be issued are on the decline.

Bruce Wolfe, north bay division chief of the board, said, "The fine idea hasn't been dropped. Now we're focusing on getting the site improved for the coming winter. We're pleased with what's happening."

Wolfe said recent inspections of the creek have been positive, and officials haven't found any additional sediment.

In a letter to the water quality board at the end of last month, Kaiser officials listed several methods that will be used to reduce sediments in the creek. In the next five years, the company will continue to clean out its sediment ponds, attempt to stabilize area hillsides, minimize dust from rock piles, reduce slopes and monitor turbidity levels in the creek.

Stewart Smith, vice president of operations at Kaiser, said, "The work in the letter [to the RWQCB] is a continuation of what's been going on here for years. It was really tough with winter rains."

In the long term, Kaiser said it will also consider moving operations 50 feet away from creek banks and restore Permanente Creek to its natural condition by removing in-stream sediment ponds and man-made culverts.

"The fact that we're a mining operation makes sediment control difficult, but we have to comply," Smith said, adding that Kaiser has spent more than a million dollars since last winter to repair portions of the creek.

He said Kaiser has already replaced dirt embankments on the creek that are prone to erosion with approximately 22,000 feet of concrete "K-rails," which are also used as dividers on many highways.

Kaiser also has hired a geotechnical firm to address the site's erosion problems, Smith said.

In photographs taken by Kaiser during heavy rains last winter, the waterway more resembled the Colorado River than the normally serene Permanente Creek.

John West, an environmental specialist for the water board, also said that Kaiser's site is difficult to manage, and that so much material is being moved by large trucks and heavy equipment that some of it ends up in the creek. However, West and Wolfe both said it's their job to see that pollution doesn't happen in the first place.

Even West acknowledged that during the rains last winter, the sediment separation ponds were mostly ineffective because of the amounts of water running through.

"Unfortunately, in severe winters it goes right through those ponds and downstream," West said. "It's far enough up the system that even though they have the ponds upstream to collect the sediment, it still gets in the creek."

Although most of the sediment that has washed downstream is inert, or non-life-threatening, water officials said that the buildup of sediment poses a number of risks, including downstream flooding due to clogged channels and the chance of smothering plants and habitats in creek beds.

No specific testing has been done on the material that runs off from Kaiser, but Wolfe and West hypothesize that a stream's acidity level could be slightly altered by an increase in sediment.

"What it really comes down to is a capacity issue, and is something that's hard for wildlife to live with," Wolfe said, adding that the board isn't singling out Kaiser. He said there are a number of areas in the South Bay that don't properly watch sediment runoff into local creeks.

He said that construction sites and other industrial areas are equally at fault for clouding up area waters. Unfortunately, he said, the board can't always keep a diligent watch over every site.
Steve Enders

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