Process underway to transform Davenport cement plant

By Betsy Herbert

published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 02/20/2015

From the seventh floor of the Davenport cement plant cooling tower on a sunny morning last week, I was wowed by a panoramic view of the Santa Cruz County coastline and surrounding Coast Dairies property, now proposed as a national monument.

Along with other members of my tour group led by Cemex plant superintendent Kenny O’Connell, I got a touch of vertigo as I looked down across the 109-acre plant site and its sprawling infrastructure, including old diesel tanks, kilns, crushers, landfills, silos, conveyor belt, and storage buildings.

The cement plant, once a booming, belching monster, was now still and eerily quiet.

Cemex closed the plant in December 2010, ending 100 years of continuous cement production by Cemex and its predecessors.

The closure gave the adjacent communities of Davenport and Bonny Doon many reasons to celebrate. The plant was, due to the nature of its business, an emitter of dust, particulate matter and air-polluting chemicals. The massive and noisy operation involved quarrying, blasting, and transporting of thousands of tons of limestone via a long metal conveyor belt to the plant, where the rock was crushed, refined, cooked, and processed with water. The finished product was transported long distances via railroad.

The fossil fuels and electricity required to move and process all of that material was staggering. According to O’Connell, the average monthly Cemex PG&E bill was between $800,000 and $900,000.

Gone is the layer of fine white dust that continuously settled over the town of Davenport and on top of parked cars. Before it closed, the plant was the county’s largest carbon dioxide emitter. After it closed, Santa Cruz County’s greenhouse gas emissions were reduced by an astounding 59 percent. Blasting in the quarry stopped, the conveyor belt ground to a halt, and increasing concerns about impacts to Santa Cruz city water from the proposed quarry expansion were alleviated.

Still, the plant closure gave many local folks reason to worry. Many had lost their jobs. And the town’s water and wastewater treatment bills doubled after Cemex stopped subsidizing the county’s cost of treating Davenport’s water and wastewater at the site.

Since the closure, a very big question looms in the minds of local residents: “What will become of the plant?”

In 2011, Cemex sold its 8,435-acre forested lands upstream from the plant to local nonprofits Peninsula Open Space Trust and Sempervirens Fund. That undeveloped land, now renamed San Vicente Redwoods, will remain in open space as timberland, forest preserves, and trails providing public access.

Cemex is currently in negotiations with Sempervirens Fund as a potential buyer for the cement plant site. (Disclosure: I serve on the Sempervirens Fund board of directors.)

“Sempervirens Fund envisions the cement plant as a gateway into the Coast Dairies and San Vicente Redwoods recreation areas,” says Executive Director Reed Holderman. “There’s a lot more than price to discuss. The site is a diamond in the rough, but there’s a lot of rough,” he said.

Before any reuse can be considered, the site must receive a “clean bill of health,” as outlined in the county’s recently released “Public Review Draft of Davenport Cement Plant Reuse Strategic Plan.”

This environmental assessment will not be completed until 2018 at the earliest. Cemex is responsible for some cleanup, but any new owner will acquire some 14 deteriorated buildings that must be removed and cleaned up, according to the plan.

Meanwhile, the county intends to lead a “community visioning process” to identify preferred reuses for the site. A recent county survey indicated community support for a low-impact hotel/conference center, trade school, or non-polluting industrial use.