Pollutants were released into San Jose rivers from construction firm, lawsuit claims
A well-known Bay Area construction materials firm has unleashed harmful pollutants into Guadalupe River and Coyote Creek, threatening sensitive species of fish, frogs and salamanders, a newly filed lawsuit alleges.
The Santa Clara County District Attorney claims that Graniterock, an over-century-old Watsonville-based corporation, has discharged stormwater from two of its San Jose facilities that contain above-level pH values, cement, sand, concrete, chemical additives and other heavy metals. Those pollutants have endangered steelhead trout, the California Tiger Salamander and the California Red Legged frog — animals that live in and around the South Bay waterways, the suit alleges.
The complaint does not specify when or how much of the pollutants were apparently found discharged into the waterways. The suit was filed on Monday and the DA said the violations happened at the company’s recycling plant on 100 Granite Rock Way and a cement facility on 11711 Berryessa Road.
In a statement, Graniterock said it has been working for “several years” with the county to “mitigate the potential environmental impact of operations” at its two facilities and that a settlement is in the works.
“As part of the settlement Graniterock has made significant improvements to the facility, including the installation of a stormwater treatment system,” wrote Aaron Johnston, Graniterock’s Vice President of Environmental and Quality Services. He also said that the company has teamed up with a local non-profit called CHEER, which specializes in habitat preservation.
A spokesperson for the company did not provide details about the settlement and said they would become available in future court filings. The DA declined to comment.
The 14-mile-long Guadalupe River starts in the Santa Cruz Mountains’ eastern foothills, flowing north through downtown San Jose and into the San Francisco Bay. Above Guadalupe is Coyote Creek, which runs 63.6 miles north from its headwaters in the Diablo Range east of Morgan Hill to the Bay near Alviso.
Newsha Ajami, a water expert at Berkeley Lab, said that the pollutants named in the lawsuit can have far-reaching environmental impacts. The toxic stormwater not only reaches rivers and threatens marine life but can also leech into soils. The species in the Guadalupe River and Coyote Creek could face “all sorts of problems and diseases” from the pollutants, she said, and this could affect not only how they spawn but the larger food chain as well.
With climate change becoming more unpredictable, Ajami said the suit calls for California State Water Resources Control Board to rethink how they handle stormwater permitting. The recent storms in California have presented challenges for industries that must comply with stormwater rules, she said.
“If you don’t have the capacity to retain the water, or process the water that you get in a short amount of time, what can you do?” asked Ajami, adding there needs to be more of a climate change-focused lens on stormwater permitting.
“This may be one lawsuit, but this is a reflection of a bigger change we’re experiencing,” she said. “We don’t want to see people suing each other left and right for different things because we don’t have the right tools in place to protect our environment and people.”
Steve Holmes, founder and executive director of the South Bay Clean Creeks Coalition, which conducts river clean-ups and water testing, said he is concerned about the allegations against Graniterock. He asserted that the large population of homeless residents that live along Coyote Creek could face health impacts — and that recently discovered Chinook salmon could also be affected.
“It’s beyond frustrating,” said Holmes. “We’re trying to get this situation turned around.”
He also pointed out that it is not the first time that a San Jose company has been in trouble for polluting the area’s waterways. Last year, the auto-parts company Pick-n-Pull paid more than $2.5 million as part of a settlement reached with 14 California district attorneys. Part of the violations included polluted stormwater that went into Coyote Creek during the 2017 floods.
Graniterock was founded in 1900 and is a supplier of sand, concrete, asphalt and other construction materials. The company also has a construction arm that conducts paving, excavating and other activities — as well as a rail service to transport products to job sites. Its flagship quarry is in the unincorporated town of Aromas, which is wedged between Monterey and San Benito counties.
The company has a storied history in the Bay Area, founded by construction engineer Arthur Roberts Wilson and businessman Warren Porter, who first eyed the granite quarry in Aromas at the turn of the century, according to Graniterock’s website. To mark its 100-year anniversary, the company hosted former President George H.W. Bush at its Watsonville headquarters in Feb. 2000. Twelve years later, its longtime CEO Bruce Wilson Woolpert died in a tragic boating accident in Lake Tahoe.
In addition to its sites in San Jose and Aromas, Graniterock has operations stretching from the city of Seaside near Monterey all the way up north in Concord. Last year, the company embarked on a $12 million project to build an underpass on Highway 17 through the Santa Cruz Mountains to allow for wildlife crossings. The project was a decade in the making and aimed at preventing deer, mountain lions and other wildlife from being injured or killed my motorists.