After nearly two years, residents in northern Irvine are still deadlocked with the city council on how to deal with an asphalt factory less than a mile away from homes, with the council members saying there’s nothing more they can do.
A Voice of OC investigation earlier this year found residents near the All American Asphalt factory had been reporting concerns about emissions for over two years.
Ultimately, some homeowners took the issue upon themselves, working with volunteer researchers from UC Irvine to study the issue with air sensors set up in their neighborhood.
Now, the Southern California Air Quality Management District is studying the issue, and has repeatedly stated the emissions are not causing health problems.
But many residents say they’ve struggled with a variety of respiratory issues, migraines and coughing years before learning there was a factory in their backyard.
The city is currently suing the plant, claiming it creates a public nuisance. Irvine officials also hired consultant firm Ninyo & Moore to run some air quality tests earlier this year.
The consultant delivered its findings in March, stating they found no health problems from the factory’s emissions.
An increasing number of residents have come out to public meetings to share how the factory’s emissions have changed their lives, asking council members to get more involved.
“I was shocked to learn there was one in Irvine to begin with in this master planned community…how does that happen?” said Tom Hazzard, a homeowner near the plant at the council’s last meeting. “It irritates my eyes and throat. I walk my children to a local elementary school and have to deal with this.”
For months, the city council majority has resisted any discussion on the issue, saying while the air quality district’s response is failing, it’s not within the council’s jurisdiction to do anything more about the problem.
“I want to do anything we can possibly do to validate, but I’m feeling like we’re running around in circles right now. It’s a little frustrating, clearly we all care about the impact of carcinogens,” said Councilwoman Tammy Kim in a phone interview last Wednesday. “No one has been able to prove or indicate anything and at a certain point I don’t know how much of it is hysteria.”
Other council members have consistently avoided discussing the topic.
Tonight, Mayor Farrah Khan is hosting a quality of life town hall meeting specifically addressing air quality.
But the flier for the event clearly stated the All American Asphalt plant would not be discussed.
“I can’t believe you will have a town hall on this and won’t allow All American Asphalt poisoning our air to even be on an agenda of a regular city hall meeting!” wrote commenter Donna Green on Nextdoor. “Without CLEAN AIR there is no quality of life!”
Khan did not return requests for comment.
Councilman Larry Agran, the loudest voice on the council calling for more action, said he’s still studying what action the council can take, but that the city needs to step up and work with other government agencies on behalf of residents.
“Without the city’s strong advocacy, this untenable situation will just persist. That’s unacceptable,” Agran said in an interview last week. “I know there aren’t other parts of town where you step outside and are assaulted by overwhelming asphalt odors and debilitating air quality that makes it almost impossible for you to live day to day.”
Council members Mike Carroll and Anthony Kuo did not return requests for comment.
Agran’s requests for a discussion during a council meeting have gone unanswered.
Since a March meeting hosted by the air quality district, the only city-led meeting on the issue was a town hall hosted by Agran earlier this month, which saw a group of volunteer advisors from UC Irvine who helped residents study the issue share their concerns.
While no other council members attended that meeting, they were forced to watch a solid chunk of it at their last city council meeting, where three residents sacrificed their time during public comments to air clips of Dean Baker, a retired professor and former director of the university’s Center for Occupational and Environmental Health whose been studying the issue.
After those three people gave up their time to air the clips, city attorney Jeff Melching stepped in to cut off another two video clips, saying the clip’s repeated citation of Baker violated city rules restricting commenters to three minutes.
“I was aware these five clips were coming tonight, I did not realize they were five clips of testimony from the same person,” Melching said. “I don’t know what is on the two remaining clips … but if they’re more testimony from Mr. Baker then they aren’t appropriate for inclusion tonight.”
At the forum, Baker said the air quality district is performing its job perfectly, but the agency can’t do the job residents need it to do and asked for the council to hire an outside consultant to review the problem and provide a report on the issue.
“The primary mandate for (the air quality district is) chronic exposure. They’re doing what they’re supposed to do,” Baker said in an interview after his presentation at the event. “It’s not malicious, it’s just inadequate.”
But some on the city council point out they already did that by hiring Ninyo & Moore, who came back and reported no issue.
“I thought that’s what we did, I’m kind of perplexed,” Councilwoman Kim said when asked about the issue.
Activists and Baker raised concerns about Ninyo & Moore before the company began testing, pointing out the contractor’s decision to test at only four sites for 24 hours significantly reduced the reliability of their results in a letter to Khan at the time.
Khan did not respond to their concerns, and said the city’s testing was “more detailed than other monitoring efforts underway by either UCI or AQMD.”
The debate surrounding how to handle the factory has also triggered discussions for many families about leaving the city behind altogether, as many of the activists who fought over the issue for years are refusing to take any more.
“If we don’t believe real progress is being made, we will move our family. We have young children who are in elementary and junior high school, and I do not believe our air quality here at our home is safe now,” Hazzard said. “I am very disappointed and have been downright angry that this was allowed to happen. Even if I move out, my goal is to make sure no one else buys a home or decides to lease a home … without having that disclosed to them.”
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @NBiesiada.