Irvine residents could get a peek at the timeline for when a controversial asphalt factory on the northern edge of the city will leave before the end of the year after City Manager Oliver Chi said they expect a settlement within 60 days.
And Irvine City Council members might speed up the process of booting the factory or curb its emissions after they directed staff to look into hiring an outside attorney to help them.
The All American Asphalt plant has been operating on the northern edge of Irvine since the 1990s, but as more residents have moved into the Orchard Hills neighborhood that sits right next to the factory, many have started asking for the factory to be removed.
While no criminal charges have been brought against the factory, residents have said for years that the continued release of chemicals like benzene near their homes has made the air unbreathable.
“My grandparents came to visit us to find a home … so they could live in our community,” said Eric, a public commenter at the council’s July 12 meeting. “My grandparents are from Beijing, where the air is not the best. So what is telling is that when they got out here, they had to stop their daily walks, because they said their eyes would burn and sting from the air.”
While there were multiple public meetings hosted by the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the chief state agency in charge of regulating air pollution, and the city last year, the latest news came in February when the city said it was looking to settle the case with the factory’s closure.
Most of the discussion on that litigation has taken place behind closed doors, a common practice for cities.
It’s frustrated some residents who feel they haven’t been given any update in months.
But at a city council meeting last week, Chi said he “anticipates” that a proposed settlement agreement will be back within 60 days.
“We think we have a framework AAA has tentatively agreed to,” Chi said. “Key issues we’re still resolving are identifying a different site they may be relocating to.”
Councilwoman Tammy Kim, who asked for the public update, asked questions on why the city chose not to pursue other options like eminent domain to get the factory shut down faster.
City Attorney Jeff Melching said that without a planned public project for the site, those options to take away the property by force were out of the city’s reach.
“That’s the starting point, that’s what you need in order to start a condemnation or eminent domain process,” Melching said at the meeting. “We anticipate that it would be expensive.”
Melching said the city could file a criminal complaint, and that it had been discussed, but “in the end, the direction we chose was to use a civil action, and there were reasons for that.”
Beyond the existing lawsuit, it’s unclear what other steps the city is planning to take in the near future.
Councilman Larry Agran proposed a series of options, including hiring another lawyer to review the issue, implementing air quality standards for the city and studying potentially condemning the site and turning it into a parking lot.
While the council discussed numerous options, including moving forward with just a focus on the settlement, they ultimately voted to study bringing in outside counsel and look at whether or not they could implement new air quality standards.
Councilman Anthony Kuo also asked to study bringing in independent outside counsel, who would review the city’s legal stance independent of Melching, saying that clearly a lot of residents didn’t have faith in his work.
“Mr. Melching’s ability and integrity were criticized and besmirched tonight, so I think what folks are asking for is essentially a second opinion,” Kuo said.
When asked if he doubted Melching’s work by Councilman Mike Carroll later in the meeting, Kuo clarified he just wanted an outside lawyer to ease public concerns.
“I don’t hold that opinion, but others do,” Kuo said when asked if he was unsatisfied with Melching’s work. “So in order to give others the benefit of the doubt, I’m willing to say let’s get a second opinion. I personally believe that the opinion that comes back will be similar…but I want it to come from somebody independent.”
The council also directed their staff to study condemning the site, but refused to state what would replace the factory on that site.
The council is set to hear back on all of those issues at their July 26 meeting.
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and a corps member with Report for America, a Groundtruth initiative. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @NBiesiada.
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