A group of UCI scientists and the South Coast Air Quality Management District announced this week they would consider teaming up on efforts to study fumes from an asphalt plant in Irvine that residents say is affecting their quality of life.

All American Asphalt has operated an asphalt plant on the edge of the city since 1993, opening before the city annexed the piece of land it sits on. In 2005, the city council approved the first homes to be built just half a mile away from the factory, in a development named Orchard Hills. 

Residents say that smells from the factory have been a daily problem over the past several years, and question what health impacts the emissions could have on them. Following what they saw as inaction by the air quality district, they took action themselves to study the issue.

[Read: Irvine Residents Raise Alarm Over Dangerous Emissions In Million Dollar Neighborhood]

Working with volunteer scientists from UC Irvine, resident group Nontoxic Neighborhoods completed air sampling that showed high levels of volatile organic compounds in the air of homes surrounding the factory, chemicals which are linked to potential negative health impacts. 

The city of Irvine, the air quality district and a separate team from UCI under the leadership of researcher Donald Blake completed separate sampling efforts. Following Voice of OC’s publication of the resident’s data, the air quality district announced they would be hosting a public meeting to discuss the issue.  

The air quality district says their results so far show no health risk for residents in the area despite the asphalt smells, but every researcher agreed more studies need to be done on the emissions to figure out the real impacts. 

“Does more work need to be done? It is and that’s what we’re working toward,” said Jason Low, the Assistant Deputy Executive Officer for monitoring and analysis at the air quality district. “Dr. Jun Wu and Dr. Mousavi (UCI volunteers) are showing there are certain times with higher (volatile organic compound) levels than others, but to characterize that at this point in the context of health are difficult.”

The benefit of the readings conducted by the UCI volunteers are that they establish a baseline for when and where chemical hotspots pop up, but they can’t get a detailed breakdown of the specific chemicals in the air. Their scanners can only detect the total level of volatile organic compounds and aren’t set to specifically scan for chemicals from the factory.  

The air quality district’s scanners can capture much more detailed data on the specific chemicals, but can only run in 24 hour bursts and take the daily averages, failing to capture detailed emissions in short periods when residents say the smells and emissions are at their worst. 

By pairing the two efforts together, researchers hope to provide a broader understanding of the emissions coming from the factory and their impact. 

The residents and the air quality district are set to be the only ones looking at the issue going forward, as both the city and Blake’s research group they would be dropping out of the effort without further funding. 

The city paid environmental contractor Ninyo & Moore to examine the plant and they ultimately sampled on four different days that showed no specific chemicals spiking. They are not under contract to complete any further testing.

Comments from the city council were limited during the meeting, with Councilman Larry Agran repeating the call from residents for the city to host a study session on the issue and put in more resources. 

“I think it’s imperative that we look not only at air quality but the quality of life that’s being experienced by people under these conditions,” Agran said. “Whatever responsibility the city had…we need to own up to that.”

Mayor Farrah Khan and council members Anthony Kuo and Tammy Kim were also in attendance, but didn’t offer any opinions in public on the factory’s operation. In a copy of the meeting’s agenda given to Voice of OC, Khan was slated to speak before the panel but was never called on. 

Barbara Barletta, the representative for Blake’s group, said that while their initial tests were done on a voluntary basis they would need new funding to move forward. 

“It’s impossible to give any type of hard conclusion because of the limited amount of data,” Barletta said. “If we really want a complete characterization of the air surrounding the facility, we want event episodes and non event episodes.”

Residents also had extensive opportunities to question the panel and the air quality district staff, with many asking about the district’s ability to enforce consequences for the factory. 

“What I think you guys are doing is good, but it needs to be much more comprehensive,” said Kevin Lien, one of the leaders of Nontoxic Neighborhoods. “After all this review, do you not believe and agree the study’s design lacks sufficient power…to come to any kind of conclusion regarding health risk assessment?” 

Low responded that their current readings didn’t show any health issues in the area, and that they would keep working with the UCI volunteers to review the data. 

“We have what’s called the graded approach, where we’re going to look at this initial set of data, evaluate it, and choose next steps,” Low said. 

Another resident also had concerns over the air quality district consistently testing every six days, and asked if the factory was forewarned of the testing. 

Aaron Katzenstein, laboratory services manager for the district, said the factory was not notified ahead of community testing but acknowledged they did follow a schedule.   

“We have a schedule and that correlates with our samples for other monitoring stations,” Katzenstein said “I don’t think they would change their operations based on our sampling, that would be pretty hard to do.” 

The air quality district refused to commit to a time frame on the next community update, but said they would be carrying out testing at the plant within the next month and encouraged residents to follow their progress on their website. 

Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at nbiesiada@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.

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