Irvine Neighborhood Raises Stink Over Asphalt Plant

December 11, 2020 Updated: December 13, 2020

The smell of burnt rubber and worries over air pollution are keeping some residents up at night in neighborhoods surrounding an asphalt-mixing plant in Irvine, California. The air, they say, is so foul they have to close their windows.

At a community meeting led by the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) on Dec. 9, more than a dozen residents demanded answers from a panel of air quality experts and enforcement officials.

The culprit is All American Asphalt, a paving company whose hot mix and batch plant has been in the same location on Jeffrey Road for nearly 30 years, long before Orchard Hills and nearby residential areas existed. But since February 2019, AQMD has received 834 complaints about the nocturnal stench.

AQMD has inspected the site, launched an ongoing investigation, cited All American Asphalt for five public nuisance violations since September 2019, and has begun an air quality study in communities near the site, the panel members told residents. The air monitoring study began Dec. 2. All American Asphalt has recently taken measures to mitigate the impacts to the community and is working with AQMD to do more.

Because trucks haul asphalt at night, when California road construction crews normally work to beat the heat and traffic, that’s when the odor tends to be the strongest, they said.

Land-Use Questions

In recent times, the company changed the formula of its asphalt by adding crumb rubber to the mix, which smells like burnt tires, former Irvine mayor Christina Shea told The Epoch Times.

“They melt these old tires down and it actually goes into the asphalt … and it makes the roads more pliable and softer,” she said.

No one paid the plant much attention until neighborhoods grew up around it and the plant began producing crumb rubber. When the plant began operations in the early ’90s, “there was nothing out there,” she said.

With the increasing number of complaints, the city might eventually be faced with offering some incentives to the company to relocate, Shea said.

Shea said the real issue has become one of land use, and because of that, there’s no quick fix. “These people buy $1 [million] or $2 million homes, and why would you want to live next to an industrial site that’s creating all this smell with these asphalt issues?”

The company and its fumes were a controversial topic at Irvine City Council meetings leading up to the Nov. 3 election. On Dec. 8, the day Mayor Farrah Khan was sworn into office, the city received more than 50 complaints about odor and pollutants emanating from the plant.

A spokesperson for All American Asphalt declined to comment or offer a written statement, when contacted by The Epoch Times on Dec. 10. But some measures the company has taken to address the matter were discussed at the Dec. 9 meeting.

New Equipment, Testing

The plant continues to operate, but voluntarily agreed to shut down the crumb rubber facility on Nov. 25. The company has also rerouted its trucks and placed tarps over them to contain the smell of hot asphalt.

Amir Dejbakhsh, deputy executive officer of engineering and permitting at AQMD, said the organization issued research permits to All American Asphalt in late November and early December to allow the facility to install a proposed carbon absorption system to control odors from the crumb rubber blending equipment, and to replace the burners in the plant’s asphalt oil heater.

“The research permit will allow us to evaluate the effectiveness of the carbon system in reducing odors. And, at the same time, because of the extensive source testing and monitoring requirements that we have imposed, we will be able to accurately determine the emissions from this operation. The proposed carbon system will consist of two vessels, each vessel will have 2,000 pounds of carbon. And the exhaust from the process will go through both carbon vessels before it’s released to the atmosphere,” Dejbakhsh said at the meeting.

Dejbakhsh said it could take several weeks for the new equipment to be shipped to the plant and installed before testing can begin. In the meantime, the crumb rubber facility is shut down.

“It’s going to take some time … but for now, we just wanted to make sure that people understood that part of the system isn’t in operation,” said AQMD Executive Officer Wayne Nastri.

South Coast AQMD is also reviewing permit applications “for potential adverse environmental impacts under the California Environmental Quality Act, which includes a review of potential air quality and health risk impacts associated with the project,” AMQD stated in its report.

Concerns About Carcinogens

Several residents expressed their disappointment that is has taken nearly two years and hundreds of complaints for any action to be taken against All American Asphalt.

One resident, a physician, told the AQMD panel that he’s concerned about potential long-term effects of toxins on the health of his neighbors who, he said, want to see the plant closed permanently.

“I’m looking at benzene. I’m looking at formaldehyde. These are all carcinogens,” he said. “I’m a physician. I know what carcinogens are and how they work.”

“It’s not an odor issue,” he said, pointing out that people can’t necessarily smell formaldehyde and benzene at lower concentrations that can still be carcinogenic.

Dr. Jo Kay Ghosh, an epidemiologist and AQMD health effects officer, said All American Asphalt must comply with emissions regulations like any other plant, but agreed carcinogens are among the pollutants emitted.

“You’re right … some of these pollutants are carcinogens,” Ghosh said. But it’s “really about how much of that is getting down into the community. And that’s one of the questions that we’re trying to answer through the air monitoring.”

Ghosh said air monitoring samples will also capture benzene emitted from vehicles and other facilities, not just All American Asphalt, but it would give AQMD better data to evaluate the level of contaminants in the areas surrounding the plant.

Losing Sleep

Another resident complained that because the odor is strongest at night, residents have to stay up late to call in complaints, wait for an inspector to arrive and confirm in person that the odor is present. She demanded that AQMD streamline its reporting process.

“You have to make an exception. It’s in the middle of the night,” the resident said. “That’s when this facility operates, and this is when people are at rest, and we need to wake up and go to work the next morning.”

Nastri told the resident not to lose any more sleep over it. “If you are concerned about having to stay up late to respond, I would say go to sleep. You’ve let us know. We know the situation here. We are working on it,” he said.

UC–Irvine

A few participants in the meeting connected with University of California–Irvine (UC–Irvine), said the university had conducted its own study of air quality in the vicinity of the plant, and urged more cooperation between AQMD and UC–Irvine.

Nastri said he wasn’t aware UC–Irvine had done a study, but that AQMD would like to see the data.

Officials Attend Virtual Meeting

Orange County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett and Yorba Linda Mayor Pro Tem Carlos Rodriguez, who sit on the South Coast AQMD’s governing board of directors, reassured residents that the agency is working to solve the air quality issues in the area.

Mayor Khan spoke briefly at the outset of the AQMD-hosted meeting. “This issue is definitely a high priority for us, as is protecting the health and well-being of our residents,” she said.