Irvine city leaders have widely advertised their home as the safest city in America for years, but residents who live downwind of the All American Asphalt plant haven’t felt that after years of complaints over the plant’s emissions into their neighborhood were ignored, even downplayed. 

After four years of protests, studies, lawsuits and marathon city council meetings, a solution is finally on the horizon for the city to buy the factory and shut it down, with plans to turn the factory and surrounding land into a nature preserve. 

All American Asphalt did not respond to requests for comment. 

It’s a major victory for residents, who were told for years by California’s regulators and other local government leaders that there was nothing they could do about the stench – with some saying the residents’ concerns were unfounded and criticizing Voice of OC coverage of their complaints.  

[Read: Irvine Residents Get Public Airing of Concerns About The Air in Their Neighborhoods]

Residents Reported Problems For Years, But Were Ignored 

A birds eye view of the Asphalt factory in Irvine. Credit: JOSE HERNANDEZ, Voice of OC

When the factory opened in 1993, there was nothing near it. 

But 12 years later, Irvine had incorporated the land and approved the construction of Orchard Hills, a master planned community built by the Irvine Company set to be the jewel of the city’s northern edge just over half a mile downhill from the factory. 

Many residents say they weren’t informed of the factory before they bought their homes, and its position behind the hills made it impossible to see from their backyards.

While they couldn’t see it on their first visit, they smelled it after they moved in.  

“Sometimes we’d have the windows open and it wasn’t until 1 or 2 in the morning we’d wake up from the smell being so strong,” said Jillian Dale, an Orchard Hills resident who said it was a problem all five years she’d been in her house. “It would be so bad we’d have to tape up under the vents to keep the smell out.” 

“It’s just been a nightmare.” 

Kim Konte, one of the founders of a neighborhood group called Nontoxic Neighborhoods, said she didn’t let her kids play outside after she found out about the factory. 

“People in Irvine just assume it’s the safest city, but it’s all smoke and mirrors,” she said at the time. “It’s really like a bad movie.” 

Dozens of residents came forward with stories like theirs, with 2,700 people signing an online petition to shut down the factory. 

A sign alerting residents of asphalt pollutants is placed in the affected neighborhood corner. Oct. 22, 2020. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Neighborhood residents also filed over 700 complaints from Sept. 2019 to Feb. 2021 about the smell to the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the state agency responsible for overseeing the factory.    

While the air quality district staff issued half a dozen notices of violation to the factory over the smell and held a few discussions with residents, the factory continued to operate without interruption.  

After years of being ignored, residents ran out of patience, and working with current and former UC Irvine faculty, conducted their own study on what was in the air outside their homes. 

Voice of OC was the only news outlet to publish the results of that study, which found that over two months there were repeated spikes of chemicals in the air that went as high as 20 times the recommended limit. 

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

Those chemicals were known as volatile organic compounds, and could cause symptoms like headaches and nausea, with long term exposure linked to higher rates of asthmas in children, damage to the liver, kidney and central nervous system, along with higher rates of cancer. 

Konte pointed to that study and Voice of OC’s investigation as a “turning point,” for their efforts to shut down the factory. 

“I think that truly was a turning point. People were so trusting and were told Irvine wins all these awards for greenest city when we can’t even open our windows cause we’re next to the largest emitter of benzene in Orange County.”

Gridlock Between City and State Sets In 

Drone footage of the hills overlooking the residential area directly affected by the Asphalt factory. Many residents commented were not aware that there was a factory behind the hills pictured in the photograph. Credit: JOSE HERNANDEZ. Voice of OC

After Voice of OC published resident’s concerns, air quality district staff held a public meeting and announced they’d be working with residents to conduct another study with stronger equipment than what UCI had been able to offer. 

[Read: Air Quality District and Residents Agree To Study Asphalt Plant Emissions in Irvine Together]

Despite that agreement to work together, residents said that the air quality district largely cut off contact after the public meeting and ignored their repeated questions for answers.  

Air quality staff insisted their response was “swift and robust,” and that their studies showed the chemicals around the homes weren’t strong enough to cause any problem, and also claimed the devices residents and UCI researchers used to study the air were faulty. 

[Read: Air Quality District Says Asphalt Factory in Irvine Not Harming Residents, Homeowners Disagree

While the district conducted a review of the factory’s emission reports and found errors in the factory’s reporting that had to be corrected, there hasn’t been any movement by the district to shut down or further limit emissions from the factory. 

Air quality district staff did not respond to requests for comment from Voice of OC.

Residents then turned to their city council, who insisted while they wanted to handle the issue, the power to shutdown the factory was out of their grasp despite promises to fix the problem during the 2020 election. 

Irvine City council meeting on June 22, 2021. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

During a forum hosted by Nontoxic Neighborhoods in October 2020, Mayor Farrah Khan and Councilmembers Tammy Kim and Larry Agran all said they supported relocation of the plant and that the city should take “proactive steps” to protect residents. 

But after they got elected, residents say they dropped off. 

“When they took office, we thought it was our turning point. They were so supportive of us during their campaigns,” said Lesley Tan, one of the leaders of a resident group called Stop Toxic Asphalt Pollutants in Irvine. “But everything turned the wrong way. They ignored our requests, except for Larry (Agran).” 

In a June 2021 interview, Kim said that the more she looked into the issue, the more she felt it was up to the air quality district to figure things out than the city. 

“I think we’re doing a lot of good things, despite the noise. I was very sympathetic to their plight during my campaign, the first thing I did when elected was to look into what the issues actually are,” Kim said. “At the end of the day it’s AQMD that has to get this figured out.” 

The city sued the factory in October 2020, alleging the pollution created a public nuisance, and did their own air quality testing that found no health problems connected to the emissions. 

[Read: Irvine Residents Demand City Council Action on Asphalt Factory Near Homes]

For most of the next year, there wasn’t much public action around the factory.

But that didn’t stop residents from coming out to meetings. 

Irvine residents protest on a variety of issues in front of Irvine City Hall. May 25, 2021. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

“I’m a mom of two boys and the PTA president,” said resident Mette Waldron, who spoke up at the council’s Aug. 10, 2021 meeting. “Everytime I plan an event, a red flag goes up in the back of my mind because I’m worried about the pollutants we’re breathing in.”

“The very first morning after we slept in this new home of ours … I was hit in the face with this incredibly strong odor of asphalt,” said resident Tom Hazzard at the same meeting. “It irritates my eyes and my throat. I walk my children to the local elementary school at Canyon View every morning and have to deal with this.”

“Please take this issue with the seriousness it deserves.”  

After months of residents showing up at city council meetings, the council approved new restrictions that blocked trucks leaving the factory from going through neighborhoods in November 2021, and required the truck beds be covered to stop the smell from leaking out. 

[Read: Irvine Rolls Out New Restrictions Around Asphalt Factory Ahead of New Home Developments]

Council members also asked state Senator Dave Min to lobby for state funds to help buy out the factory rather than wait for a settlement with the factory. 

Min refused, saying it was the city’s responsibility and that even though they insisted they had no control over the plant they had measures they could take, a move that was praised by many residents. 

“My office has researched your suggestions to address these emissions and has determined that the City of Irvine is much better situated and has much better options at its disposal than the State for addressing this local issue, and I urge you to act accordingly,” Min said in a November 2021 statement. 

“Contrary to the assertions made in your November 8 letter, the City of Irvine already possesses broad and sweeping authority to act immediately and decisively.” 

[Read: Irvine Council, State Senator Play Hot Potato on Addressing Asphalt Factory Emissions]

The city then announced plans in February 2022 to begin seeking a settlement with the asphalt company, but the council rejected a proposed settlement agreement in October and told city staff to keep working. 

[Read: Irvine To Consider Booting Controversial Asphalt Factory

Progress on the factory didn’t come for another year after the initial plans were announced.

What’s Next? 

Irvine residents protest asphalt pollutants outside of Irvine City Hall on May 25, 2021. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Irvine city leaders recently announced plans to shut down the factory at their Feb. 28 council meeting, and while city staff made it clear the deal isn’t 100% finished yet, they say they’re closing in. 

The current plan is to have the city take out a loan and buy the factory from All American Asphalt to shut it down for a price the two have agreed upon, though that number has not been released publicly yet. 

After that, the Irvine Company has pledged to gift the city with around 475 acres of land surrounding the factory, with the city agreeing to review the company’s master plan for expanding the Orchard Hills neighborhood that sits below the factory. 

While the Irvine Company proposed the neighborhood previously, they pulled their plans for it amidst repeated complaints from residents about the ongoing air pollution issue. 

According to City Manager Oliver Chi, the city is under no obligation to approve the development in order to get the land. 

“We have a legal obligation, irrespective of the deal, to bring the item forward for planning,” Chi said in a phone call with Voice of OC. “It’s not a requirement in my mind, just a provision of the agreement.” 

Every member of the city council praised the proposed solution at that meeting.  

“The entire city council has been behind this,” said Councilman Mike Carroll, who was part of the council subcommittee focused on the asphalt plant. “This feels like government delivering and doing what it’s supposed to do.” 

In a statement to Voice of OC, the Irvine Company praised the proposed solution. 

“This is a thoughtful master-planned solution to respond to community requests and we are pleased to support the city in making it a reality.” 

While most of that land will be turned into a nature preserve surrounding the factory, between 80-90 acres will be re-zoned and sold off to a housing developer for enough to pay off the city’s original loan for buying the factory. 

The remaining land is then set to be developed with a network of trails, smaller parks and open space, but most of the details have yet to be created according to Chi, who said the city’s top priority is getting the factory shut down first. 

According to Chi, more detailed plans on the proposal are set to come before the city council and the public by the end of the month. 

Konte and other residents say they’re waiting on more details before they can figure out if it’s a good plan for the neighborhood, pointing out how there was still a large asphalt plume over the neighborhood 

“We’ve been lied to before,” Konte said. “It’s great, but it’s too early to take a victory lap.” 

Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at or on Twitter @NBiesiada.


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