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New regulations could be coming for a controversial asphalt plant in the city of Irvine after a lengthy discussion Tuesday night, where months worth of studies and years worth of frustrations were laid out for public view.
Residents in north Irvine have complained about the All American Asphalt facility for years, but complaints have ratcheted up since 2018 when the facility began increasing its production at the site.
Over the last year, groups from the University of California, Irvine, independent contractors and the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the state’s chief air quality regulators in Southern California, have studied the factory and produced a series of reports on the data.
The air quality district announced last month that after six months of air sampling, they don’t think the facility’s emissions have any harmful impact on the surrounding neighborhoods.
“We don’t see community air toxins of health concern coming from the facility,” said Jason Low, an Assistant Deputy Executive Officer from the air quality district at the Tuesday meeting. “From what we’ve seen, we did not think that more air testing is needed.”
But dozens of residents came out to this week’s city council meeting to talk about how the city council’s inaction and the facility’s operations have impacted their lives, sharing personal stories and videos showing uncovered asphalt delivery trucks going through neighborhoods.
James McFadden, a resident in Irvine’s Great Park neighborhood, said he was planning to move out over concerns with potential toxins from the old El Toro Marine Base near his house to north Irvine, noting that the house he once planned to buy was in escrow when he learned of the asphalt factory.
“It was frustrating to find out that in trying to avoid one hazardous part of Irvine we ended up in the heart of another toxic zone,” McFadden said, standing next to his wife and infant child.
“We heard it was one of the safest cities in America.”
McFadden said the experience made him ultimately choose to not buy in Irvine again.
Tom Hazzard, a homeowner near the plant who’s spoken at previous city council meetings, said he smells the factory multiple times a week when he walks his dog early in the morning, and that when he walked his daughter to school Tuesday morning a truck with asphalt rolled through his neighborhood.
“(The air quality district) mentioned very casually they smelled some odor from the trucks as if that’s acceptable. how is that acceptable?” Hazzard said.
Residents speaking at the city council meeting also showed videos specifically focusing on Councilwoman Tammy Kim and Mayor Farrah Khan regarding their comments on the factory during the campaign where they promised to fix the problem.
“The city of Irvine is the last line of defense for its residents, and this city is failing our children,” said Kim Konte, one of the leading activists calling for the factory to be moved out of the city altogether. “We moved here for our kids. So learning that it’s not safe, that’s not acceptable.”
Preya Shirvastava, a resident in the neighborhood near the factory, called on the council to establish an independent committee of scientists to review the issue.
“If you could please honor us and use academic scientists, we’d really appreciate that,” she said. “Please make your voters your special interest groups.”
Because the discussion on the factory was agendized as a presentation, the city council couldn’t vote on any new action during their meeting, but council members did propose a series of new initiatives and asked staff to bring those back with more details at later meetings.
Khan and Councilman Anthony Kuo said they wanted to look at revising the city’s municipal code to require asphalt trucks to drive away from neighborhoods and potentially require the trucks be covered when they leave the factory.
“There’s zero reason….an asphalt truck should be driving by a two lane street near Canyon View elementary school,” Kuo said, referring to one of the videos shown by resident Tom Hazzard. “It seems like quite a number of those were going down a route they weren’t supposed to be.”
Councilman Mike Carroll and Kim also asked what steps the city could take to get independent reviewers to look at the situation, asking advice from Dean Baker, a former UCI professor who helped lead resident’s air testing efforts about who the city could recruit for that effort.
“I’d like to work with you. I think you could play a critical role,” Carroll said to Baker. “I really appreciate everything you’re doing.”
However, the council made it clear that shutting down the factory altogether was beyond their power, and that any steps they took would be to limit the impact the factory has on homeowners.
The only council member publicly still pushing for the plant to be entirely closed was Councilman Larry Agran, who had been pushing for the council to discuss the issue publicly for months and called the air quality district’s study “junk science.”
“I think we have to face up to the fact that one way or another this plant sooner rather than later has to be shut down and removed to an appropriate place where production of asphalt can take place safely,” Agran said. “That’s a heavy lift.”
The council also took aim at some of the activists during the discussion, with Carroll saying he wanted to work directly with Baker and not residents filing “PRAs (Public records requests) and other garbage,” and Khan criticizing activists who claimed she had dropped off on her campaign promises to deal with the factory.
“I’m not ashamed of the statements I made. New information is always presented, and the limits on what we can and cannot do change. But that doesn’t mean I don’t care or that I flipped,” Khan said. “Cute videos by the way.”
Carroll also asked protestors why they were so willing to criticize the rest of the council but defend Agran, who was on the council when the city approved the housing developments near the factory.
“The mayor brought this forward, but then logically you attack her and attack the vice mayor, you don’t attack the person who put it in the city,” Carroll said, pointing to Agran. “As much grandstanding as some of us want to do, there’s nothing we can do! We heard a lot of remediation and ideas but I cannot legally compel the closure of that plant that was annexed.”
While the council didn’t announce a set date when they would next discuss the factory, multiple members of the council said they wanted to discuss the proposals at the council’s next meeting on September 28.
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.