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Irvine investigating factory for potentially toxic fumes after pressure from residents and UCI advisors

A photo of the All American Asphalt factory in Irvine.
A photo of the All American Asphalt factory in Irvine.
(Courtesy of Kim Konte)

After facing pressure from north Irvine residents and a group of UC Irvine advisors, the city has hired a contractor to investigate whether an asphalt factory is spewing out toxic fumes.

For months, residents have been contacting the city and regional air regulators to force All American Asphalt to cease production and relocate. They say they have felt like their voices are falling on deaf ears.

The community group, Non-Toxic Neighborhoods, has been leading the effort through organizing residents, stationing lawn signs throughout the city and partnering with UC Irvine professors. More than 2,100 people have signed an online petition.

Parents like Kim Konte, founder of Non-Toxic Neighborhoods, worry for their children’s health.

“Every day there’s exposure, I go for a walk and it stings your eyes,” said Konte, who lives near the asphalt plant. “We don’t know what the long-term impacts are going to be on our kids.”

In response to residents, the city has hired Irvine-based Ninyo and Moore Geotechnical and Environmental Sciences Consultants to take air samples and review the emissions of the asphalt factory.

Melissa Haley, Irvine deputy city manager and spokesperson, said she could not say when the contractor’s air sampling and review will be completed.

The city has been unwilling to discuss specifics about the contractor and the testing of the asphalt factory due to ongoing litigation.

Updated information about the plant is available on the city’s website.

City Hall sued the asphalt plant in late July, claiming it’s in violation of air quality regulations and local public nuisance provisions.

The lawsuit contends that the plant discharges air contaminants stemming from asphalt, oil, tar-like substances, rubber and smoke. A hearing is set for Jan. 25.

All American Asphalt declined to comment for this article.

A photo of the All American Asphalt factory's fumes from an Orchard Hills neighborhood.
A photo of the All American Asphalt factory’s fumes from an Orchard Hills neighborhood.
(Courtesy of Kim Konte)

After trying to get help from the city for so long, residents are skeptical that the contractor’s analysis will be as in depth as it needs to be.

UC Irvine professor Dean Baker, who is working with the residents and Non-Toxic Neighborhoods, shares in that skepticism. Baker has met with the consultants and reviewed its scope of work.

“The couple of questions are — are they really going to measure everything using the sort of I’ll say state-of-the-art, best methods rather than just sort of the garden-variety, EPA, regulatory methods?” Baker said in an interview. “And secondly, once they get the data, are they going to interpret it correctly in a way that is most protective of the health of the residents?”

Baker is the chief of the division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine and director of the Center for Occupational and Environmental Health at UC Irvine.

On Wednesday, he emailed a letter to newly elected Irvine Mayor Farrah Khan, urging the City Council to establish an independent scientific oversight panel to provide advice and technical recommendations to the city and contractor.

“It is essential that the exposure assessment be robust and comprehensive in order to fully characterize potential health risks,” the letter says. “It is also important that the process of conducting the exposure assessments, interpreting the findings, and developing a health risk assessment be open and transparent, so the impacted residents can be confident that the city and its agents are acting in their best interests.”

He continues: “Based on our review of the scope of work and these initial findings, we believe the air monitoring exposure assessment plan proposed by the City contractors is not sufficiently robust to fully measure the toxic chemical exposures or characterize potential health risks to nearby residents.”

Khan said Monday that a moratorium of the facility that has been proposed by residents cannot move forward “without any data supporting it.” Khan has stated she will focus on environmental issues during her mayoral term.

Newly elected Irvine Mayor Farrah Khan says she’ll focus on keeping Irvine economically stable through the pandemic and steering the city towards a green future.

“The residents definitely wanted a moratorium, and I explained to them that the process of a moratorium requires that we have some factual data to support it,” Khan said in an interview with TimesOC a few weeks ago. “And one of the things that I pushed for was to make sure that we had data available. And so right now we do have a consulting team that is out there that is going to be collecting data on air sampling and making sure that we know exactly what’s in the air, and how our residents are being affected because then we can take the next appropriate steps.”

Baker said over the phone that UC Irvine professors Jun Wu and Donald Blake lent instruments and sampling canisters to a few residents so they could measure the chemicals in the air. Baker said the data attained by residents shows elevated volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, which could be relatively innocuous or toxic.

Baker said further analysis needs to be done to determine the nature of the VOCs.

“It’s frustrating that it’s residents and UCI advisors who are pushing this through,” said Kevin Lien, a resident who lives near the asphalt factory. “You know, instead of having a resident call to complain and then the city forming a group to figure this out, we’re the one pushing them. If we didn’t do this, none of this will be happening, even though there have been hundreds, thousands of complaints.”

Baker said he knows from reports that the facility is required to file with the South Coast Air Quality Management District that it emits hydrocarbons, sulfurous compounds, heavy metals and poly-aromatic hydrocarbons, which are carcinogenic.

The asphalt facility is in the purview of the regional air regulator.

Residents and the city have laid blame on the South Coast Air Quality Management District for not doing enough to curb the asphalt factory’s emissions even though it’s been investigating the factory for more than a year. At one point, the city stated on its online page that “the agency’s actions have fallen short.”

In response, the management district held an online community forum last week with local leaders and residents. Among those in attendance at the meeting were county Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, Irvine Councilman Anthony Kuo and Khan.

Several South Coast AQMD employees spoke at the meeting, detailing its ongoing investigation of the asphalt facility.

The agency has conducted more than 30 onsite visits and issued five notices of violation to the facility for public nuisance since the beginning of the investigation last year and one for rule- and permit-related issues observed during inspections.

Nicholas Sanchez, assistant chief deputy counsel, said All American Asphalt is attempting to rectify the issues through installing a carbon absorption system and replacing burners in the asphalt oil heater to help control the odors. The agency issued a research permit earlier this month that will allow it to evaluate the effectiveness of the carbon absorption system.

South Coast AQMD will also take air samples at Northwood High and Canyon View Elementary schools, which are near the facility. The agency will collect eight to 10 “events” over a two-month period and evaluate the data and next steps. The data from these samples will be posted online.

“This issue remains a top priority for me and I am committed to doing everything within my authority as a member of the SCAQMD Governing Board to address the community’s concerns,” Bartlett said in an emailed statement.

Lindsay Reilly, spokeswoman for Rep. Katie Porter, said that their office is monitoring the situation with All American Asphalt.

Porter’s office attended the South Coast AQMD meeting last week and met with UC Irvine professors on Monday to discuss the facility.

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