The years-long debate over the All American Asphalt plant in the city of Irvine is coming to a head next week, where a public forum will show the results of multiple studies about whether the factory is releasing chemicals into the air around surrounding homes.
The factory was built in 1993, past the north edge of the city and under county jurisdiction before the city incorporated the land around the factory in the early 2000s. At the time, no homes were built near the factory, but in 2005 the city approved the construction of Orchard Hills, a master planned community built by the Irvine Company set to be the city’s crown jewel near the factory.
Residents of those homes surrounding the factory have complained about smells from the factory for years, with more than 700 complaints filed to the South Coast Air Quality Management District since Sept. 2019.
The closest homes sit just over half a mile from the factory, even though residents can’t see it due to its spot in the hills along Loma Ridge.
Residents asked for the air quality district to investigate the factory for years with no real response according to Kim Konte, leader of a local resident group called Nontoxic Neighborhoods that’s been fighting for a larger conversation on the issue.
“AQMD has had two years to collect this data and they’ve done nothing. They’re failing to do their job,” Konte said in a call with Voice of OC last month. “No one has done anything.”
Given what these residents saw as nonaction on the part of the regulatory agency, Nontoxic Neighborhoods reached out to researchers at UC Irvine to ask for help with testing the air in their neighborhoods.
After that, the air quality district and the city of Irvine both started their own testing programs as well, resulting in the release of three separate reviews back to back.
The air quality district and city both say the emissions are not hazardous, but the review by UCI researchers says that isn’t guaranteed, and that they’ve found potentially dangerous levels of chemicals known as volatile organic compounds in the air near homes.
According to Amir Mousavi, one of the volunteer researchers from UCI, those chemicals are safe in levels below .5 parts per million, and are worthy of concern once they reach two parts per million. Their results show multiple points where homes surrounding the factory reported levels as high as 10 parts per million.
Dean Baker, former director of the university’s Center for Occupational and Environmental Health and a member of the volunteer team, said that while their research is a good starting point, public agencies need to pick up the baton and launch a more comprehensive review.
“The point of the efforts by the UCI group has been to assess whether the environmental monitoring programs by the SCAQMD…and the City of Irvine through the contractors are appropriate and sufficient. They are not,” Baker said in an email to Voice of OC. “The key point is that the SCAQMD and the City of Irvine must be responsible for doing appropriate and comprehensive environmental monitoring.”
Following Voice of OC’s publication of the research completed by UCI researchers, the air quality district announced it would host a public forum on March 3 and publicly criticized the resident’s review.
“It is very concerning that the Non-Toxics Neighborhood group would create panic among residents by hiding their data from our agency, and instead providing it to the media. Their sampling program appears to use inappropriate technologies and highly uncertain methodologies to draw health conclusions,” said Wayne Nastri, executive officer of the air quality district in a letter to Mayor Farrah Khan published on the city’s website.
The air quality district and the city asked for copies of their findings multiple times, but Konte said the group refused to turn it over without a commitment to an in depth public discussion of the city’s study and the factory.
The city’s study, carried out by contractor Ninyo & Moore, measured air quality levels twice for 24 hours, which UCI researchers are concerned fails to capture the reality of the situation. UCI Researchers shared those concerns over the limited testing in a meeting with city staff in December, but say that staff ignored those concerns and proceeded as planned.
While Konte confirmed the group has refused to turn over the data to public agencies, she said the group provided presentations of its findings, including the data, to three members of the city council, Mayor Khan and council members Tammy Kim and Larry Agran.
All American Asphalt also published a letter by company representative John Gardner on the city’s website following the Voice of OC story, stating that because the resident’s equipment only measured for the total levels of volatile organic compounds and not the specific chemicals issued from the factory, the results were “virtually meaningless.”
Gardner, the Irvine plant manager, said the recommended limits for the chemicals being measured by Non Toxic Neighborhoods were too low and that the UCI researchers were volunteers, not acting on behalf of the university.
Gardner noted that the spikes in chemicals over Christmas reported by residents occurred while the factory was shut down, and could not be attributed to their operations and he claimed that no one had ever complained about the smells from the factory until 2019.
In his letter posted on the city’s website, Gardiner did not address the residents’ and university researchers’ data that found similar spikes reported multiple times in previous months, when concentrations would skyrocket for a few hours near noon before dropping back to normal levels.
Multiple residents claim they’ve filed complaints for years. Jillian Dale says she’s called at least once a week since she moved near the factory five years ago to report the fumes.
“Sometimes it would be so bad we’d have to tape up under the vents to keep the smell out. I’d put towels under the doors, the garage in the morning would just completely smell like asphalt,” Dale said. “It’s just been a nightmare.”
All American Asphalt did not return requests for comment on this article.
Despite the daily impact the factory has had on her life, Konte said she doesn’t harbor any resentment toward the company.
“It’s not All American Asphalt’s fault, they were here first. The city of Irvine and the Irvine Company are responsible for us being where we are,” Konte said.
When the city approved the project, the existence of the factory was not discussed by city staff, the Irvine Company or the city council publicly, city records show. The only mention of the factory’s possible impacts came in an 1800 page staff report, on page 1251.
“The nearest area scheduled for residential development is approximately .5 miles to the southwest of the batch plant, and is separated from the plant by a series of rolling hills and valleys. It is unlikely that a surface or subsurface release of a hazardous material would have the potential to adversely affect the proposed areas of development,” the report stated. “Therefore, the impact is not significant.”
That report was paid for by the Irvine Company through their contractor Advanced Environmental Concepts, which is a standard practice for the city, and it was reviewed by city staff.
So far, federal officials have stayed out of the debate despite calls from residents. Katie Porter, Congresswoman for the 45th district that includes the factory, was selected as chair of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations last week.
“I’m humbled and excited to chair the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee to hold polluters accountable, safeguard all of our communities, and help spearhead solutions to the climate crisis,” Porter said in a statement.
But residents say they haven’t been able to get a meeting with her after over a year of speaking repeatedly with her staff.
“Unfortunately, as we discussed in December, the Congresswoman has virtually no jurisdiction over this matter,” one of Porter’s staff said in an email to residents last December.
The final list of which agencies and officials will be present at the air quality district’s forum has not been released, but the city of Irvine and Nontoxic Neighborhoods have both said they plan to attend.
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.