The city of Irvine, widely advertised as the safest city in America, has a problem with chemical emissions in its own backyard according to a new study conducted by UC Irvine scientists.
A factory owned by All American Asphalt sits to the northeast of the city, just half a mile away from homes and schools above the Rattlesnake Reservoir. Residents of Irvine’s Orchard Hills community, where home costs routinely start at $1 million, have complained to the city and local agencies for years that the factory was pumping chemicals into their neighborhoods, and now have proof to show it.
Jillian Dale, a five-year resident of Irvine who lives less than a 10-minute drive away from the factory, says the factory has been a constant presence the entire time she’s lived in the city.
“Whenever we left the windows open…it smelled so bad, like something was burning,” Dale said. “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.”
“It’s just been a nightmare.”
All American Asphalt did not return multiple requests for an interview.
Since Sept. 2019 alone, residents have submitted over 700 complaints about the factory to the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the state agency in charge of regulating emissions for Southern California.
The All American Asphalt factory has also had repeated run-ins with the air quality district over the past two years, with six nuisance violation notices over the odors it released into nearby neighborhoods, but has continued operating.
While the district launched a testing effort in the area in December, residents weren’t content to wait that long. A resident group called Nontoxic Neighborhoods reached out to UCI faculty members earlier this year who started testing the surrounding area to find out what the factory was putting out.
Kim Konte, founder of Nontoxic Neighborhoods, said her neighborhood has been forced to close windows, keep kids inside and regularly question just how safe the air in their neighborhood is.
“It’s really like a bad movie,” Konte said. “A lot of the residents want to sue. We’re upset because the exposure has happened. If we’d known about (the factory), we would never have moved here.”
The UCI team working with residents was led by Dean Baker, former director of the university’s Center for Occupational and Environmental Health, and used monitoring equipment to capture data about the area.
After two months, the results are clear-the factory is releasing chemicals into nearby homes, but the details of what’s coming out still remain unclear.
The chemicals in question are known as volatile organic compounds. Inhaling the compounds can cause symptoms like headaches and nausea, but long-term exposure has been linked to higher rates of asthma in children, damage to the liver, kidney and central nervous system, and higher rates of cancer according to Amir Mousavi, a postdoctoral research scientist working on the testing effort.
With UCI’s equipment, scientists can measure the total number of compounds being released, but can’t delineate between specific chemicals such as formaldehyde and benzene, the factory’s two most common compounds according to their emission reports.
According to Mousavi, while there are no regulatory limits on the types of emissions they are measuring for, the recommended safe levels by scientists with the Tecam Group, a European environmental regulation company fall under .5 parts per million in the air.
UCI’s testing showed that while emissions had a wide variation throughout the day, multiple sites held a daily average of more than twice the Tecam Group’s recommended limit.
Looking at the UCI team’s hourly data for releases of chemical compounds, there were often spikes as high as 10 parts per million, 20 times the recommended limit, and at multiple sites it was a regular occurrence to see levels at least three to four times limits.
Homes further from the factory generally held at safer levels, but also saw occasional spikes of dangerous levels, the report showed. Wind, heat and other environmental factors have a massive effect on the readings according to Baker, who repeatedly emphasized a need for long term monitoring to review the issue.
According to the factory’s annual emission reports, All American Asphalt has massively ramped up its release of those chemicals in the past four years, from just over 3 tons in 2016 to more than 11 tons in 2019.
UCI is continuing its testing, but other local agencies are just diving in on examining the site’s emissions with their own equipment.
Southern California’s air quality management district is currently conducting two reviews, one gathering air samples in the area surrounding the factory ten times over the next three months and another reviewing the facility’s annual emission reports after identifying “inconsistencies,” with the reports submitted by the factory according to spokesperson Bradley Whitaker.
The agency has released six day’s worth of testing so far, which shows the factory’s emissions holding within legal limits, but staff say it will be at least a few more months before a final analysis is released. The agency also approved new equipment at the factory intended to cut down emissions that is set to be installed by March.
But even if the factory’s emissions hold within the legal limits, it doesn’t necessarily mean residents are safe, according to Baker.
“A lot of the guidelines from the state and EPA are not up to date in being protective of exposures to children who are more vulnerable than adults,” Baker, the leader of the UCI team said.
Frustrated with the slow response of the air district, the city of Irvine also jumped into the fray, hiring contractors to conduct testing and filing a lawsuit in July 2020 against the asphalt company for creating a public nuisance.
But despite publicly criticizing the air quality agency, most of the city’s actions have taken place behind closed doors. The city declined to answer questions for this article, citing the pending litigation against the factory, and referred reporters to an online information page.
The city released a copy of the complaint it filed against All American Asphalt, a laundry list of accusations that the company flatly denied in the answer it filed with the court on October 9. It also released a document describing what its goals are for their own environmental testing contractor, the firm Ninyo & Moore.
The city published the initial results from that testing in January, saying the chemicals all fell within typical background levels within the factory’s property line.
But UCI scientists have brought concerns about the testing methodology to city staff in private meetings and in a letter to Khan from Baker. Ninyo & Moore was only set to record for 24 hours at four different sites, a sample size the UCI team worry will not offer an accurate picture of what’s going on.
“We believe the air monitoring exposure assessment plan proposed by the City contractors is not sufficiently robust to fully capture the spatial and temporal variations of the toxic chemical exposures or characterize potential health risks to nearby residents,” Baker said in a letter to Khan. “We recommend that the City establish an independent scientific oversight panel to provide its professional assessment and technical recommendations.”
Khan’s response letter did not address the request for an independent panel, but instead praised the city’s efforts to deal with the factory and pointed to the fact the city was not responsible for managing air quality.
“The City has commissioned an extensive and comprehensive ambient air monitoring program. The City’s evaluation is more detailed than other monitoring efforts underway by either UCI or AQMD,” Khan said.
Khan did not return multiple requests for comment on the factory.
Many of the Orchard Hill residents have also called on the Irvine Company to come out and explain why they were never told about the factory, protesting outside the developer’s model homes on multiple occasions.
“My kids draw pictures of black clouds over the school. They’re out there with their little signs, when we picket they’re well aware of it,” Dale said. “The city and the Irvine Co. are fully responsible. As much as I dislike All American Asphalt, they were here before all this was built up around them. They picked a spot there weren’t homes by. The city of Irvine and Irvine Co saw a profit.”
Voice of OC submitted a public records request for copies of any environmental studies conducted by the city before approving the Orchard Hills development and is awaiting response from the city.
The Irvine Co. declined an interview for this article, referring reporters to an online Q&A and stating their disclosures about the factory met the legal requirements. Company representatives did not respond to requests for copies of the disclosures.
“We have air filters now in every room, it’s just ridiculous we had to go through these measures,” Dale said. “I’m afraid of what my children are breathing in. My kids are being poisoned. That’s the biggest fear for me, I’m just afraid for them.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Dean Baker was the current director of the university’s Center for Occupational and Environmental Health.
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.