Orange County’s chief air quality regulators announced on Friday they believe an asphalt factory in Irvine is not harming nearby residents after a nine month investigation.
The investigation from the South Coast Air Quality Management District started after nearby residents complained about strange smells and air problems from the nearby All American Asphalt plant for almost two years, saying they were not told about the factory before they moved in.
While not all those compounds are harmful, some including benzene have been found to cause cancer in high enough concentrations, and the factory has increasingly upped its release of those chemicals over the past five years, according to their emissions disclosures.
The new report represents the air quality district’s testing of the facility over the last nine months, which found chemicals all fell within typical levels that were too low to cause any health problems.
Kim Konte, one of the leaders of resident efforts to get the factory shut down, said their scanners showed what they needed them to — that the area surrounding the factory had elevated levels of chemicals compared to the surrounding area.
“Even if the [chemicals] are off per their opinion, the levels show that particulate matter and VOCs (volatile organic compounds) go up at the same time and down at the same time. They were very successful for what we utilized them for,” Konte said in an interview last week. “Everyone just says don’t look over the hill, it’s fine.”
The results were released on the city of Irvine’s website, which also included a tab discussing other potential sources of odors including paint and truck traffic, saying odors “do not necessarily mean high levels of toxic pollutants are present but can cause short term symptoms.”
To read the full fact sheet published by the city, click here.
The report also said the air quality district studied the device residents used to measure air quality and found the devices overestimated the total amount of volatile organic compounds in the air compared to the district’s sensors.
Residents have been using a low-cost tester called the Atmotube Pro to look at the factory’s emissions, which provides less detailed information than the district’s scanners, but can still show the total amount of particulate matter and volatile organic compounds in the air.
The district’s scanners are able to isolate the specific chemicals in the air, but take the 24 hour average of data — an issue residents have repeatedly complained about because the smell only affects them during a couple hours a day.
When asked by Voice of OC about the test, ATMO, the company behind the Atmotube, said the district’s testing of their scanners was “quite questionable.”
According to Alex Pyshkin, the company’s R&D director, the Atmotube measures for hundreds of low level volatile organic compounds while the air quality district’s sensors, known as GC-FIDs, are designed to measure for methane and non-methane hydrocarbons, excluding some of the compounds the Atmotube is designed to test for.
“Our sensor measures a wider variety of chemicals than the testing equipment, with signals for some VOC being stronger, then for the others, and thus there is no surprise that it ‘overestimated’ the amount of VOC,” Pyshkin said in a statement to Voice of OC. “We strongly support South Coast AQMD evaluation activities…but we also think approaches to testing consumer air quality measurement devices should be modified as sensing technologies vary widely.”
The issue of the factory was pulled to the forefront of Irvine politics over the past year, since the city first announced its decision to pursue a lawsuit against the factory in October of last year right before the election, as candidates on both sides of the aisle said they were ready to fight over with everything they could.
But since the 2020 election, council interest in the issue has largely dropped off, with council members claiming the city can’t talk about the issue due to their ongoing lawsuit with the factory or that the air quality district is the only agency capable of handling the problem.
Aside from one town hall event hosted by Councilman Larry Agran, the council hasn’t had an open discussion on the factory all year.
The air quality study is set to be discussed at the Irvine City Council’s next meeting on September 14, according to a memo from Mayor Farrah Khan to interim city manager Marianna Marysheva.
That presentation is set to include speakers from the air quality district and the UC Irvine volunteers, though the volunteers will not be allowed to present their own data at the meeting according to Konte.
This story was updated to include a response from ATMO, the developer of the Atmotube.
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.