Environment Advocacy Group students take the reins
How opponents of a local mine are training the next generation.
KQED QUEST. “Quarry.” Flickr, 3 April 2016, https://www.flickr.com/photos/kqedquest/2387522879/in/photostream/. Accessed 20 October 2020.
Lehigh Hanson’s Permanente Cement plant is in Cupertino, California, east of the Rancho San Antonio Preserve. A major greenhouse gas emitter, the quarry faces scorn from local environmentalists, and is under EPA violation for air and water pollution. Despite this, the plant does not get a lot of attention — likely because few local citizens realize it’s there at all.
For Monta Vista junior Anita Chamraj, who has been in YAPA’s Environment advocacy group for two years, it’s still hard to believe.
“It was…really interesting to find out that there's this huge cement plant that's a gigantic polluter right next door,” Chamraj said. “I didn't even know that existed before I joined the group.”
It is no wonder that few know of its existence, because the mine predates much of the construction around it. According to the Santa Clara County Department of Planning and Development website, Permanente Quarry first received its use permit in 1939. There have been multiple attempts to fight against the pollution the cement plant has produced — most recently, a 2011 lawsuit against Lehigh Cement from the Sierra Club, an environmental advocacy group.
Rhoda Fry, a long-time environmental advocate and mentor of the Environment group, remembers when she got involved in the Lehigh issue.
“I was tapped to get into Lehigh around 2006,” Fry said. “It just went against my sense of justice, and I wanted to do something about it. In a way, it turned my world upside down.”
Since then, Fry has been a fierce advocate for safer and greener mining. There is more to her advocacy than just protest, a principle she imparts on the students of the environment group. Having accurate and in-depth research is crucial.
“If citizens go in and say, well, I don't like this cement plant here, that's not going to get you anywhere,” Fry said. “If you can prove that things need to change, you've got a better chance of making a difference.”
Thus, the environment group has been working to use government pollution databases and learning to analyze and explain the data.
There is a mountain of information to unpack. N Wang, a group member and senior at the Harker School, said he appreciates the abundance of resources Fry provides. “Every week we've learned something, either a new way to research or look at environmental permits, or violations of some sort of environmental law,” Wang said.
The environment group has also invited many speakers with experience in law, environmental regulation, or advocacy. “Every meeting is interesting,” Wang added.
Armed with this knowledge, the Environment group is now preparing for movement.
“Recently, we were trying to make a video to bring more awareness,” Chamraj said. “We've also sent some letters to the state mining and geology board.” While writing letters is a new experience for many of the students, Fry has been more than willing to help.
To Fry, it’s about being persistent. “We need to get more people involved and to understand what the issues are,” she said. As the group builds community support and speaks to public officials, the long history of environmental advocacy and the plant is a strong reminder to be patient.
“A lot of the ways to resolve some of these complex environmental issues are just incremental,” Fry added.
Even so, the group isn’t giving up, and students are committed to making a difference. For students like Chamraj, the Environment group is a support system. “It's really nice, meeting other people who are also as passionate about the environment as I am.”
The Environment advocacy group is standing on the shoulders of giants, but its students are doing their best to make a difference, no matter how small.
Written by Henry Shi