Berkeley asphalt plant emissions dangerous, say residents

Residents allege that the Lehigh Hanson asphalt plant at 699 Virginia St. in West Berkeley is emitting dangerous fumes. Photo: Charles Siler

Residents allege that the Lehigh Hanson asphalt plant at 699 Virginia St. in West Berkeley is emitting dangerous fumes. Photo: Charles Siler

A small group of West Berkeley homeowners gathered at City Hall on Monday this week to submit a Public Record Act request, claiming the Berkeley Asphalt & Ready Mix plant on Virginia Street has been violating its use permit by emitting excessive odors and noise.

The company, owned by Texas-based Lehigh Hanson, operates an asphalt plant at 699 Virginia St. in the Oceanview area. The group of residents, who call themselves Oceanview Neighborhood Action, say the plant is constantly emitting noxious fumes, to the point that they can’t go outside or leave their windows open.

“It smells like sulfur most days, like burnt sand,” said Kate Stepanski, a resident of the neighborhood. “It’s making people sick and it’s a public hazard — it’s irresponsible.” 

Oceanview resident Beth Montano speaks at city hall Monday

Oceanview resident Beth Montano spoke at City Hall on Monday. A cancer survivor, she said she worries her cancer will come back every time she smells the asphalt plant. Photo: Charles Siler

This isn’t the first time the plant has been a subject of contention in the city. A 1999 lawsuit ended with a settlement in which the company and the city of Berkeley agreed to stricter regulation of the plant’s day-to-day operations. Members of the Oceanview group gathered Monday to demand to see the city’s inspection records following the settlement, which, they say, the city has been keeping from them.

Group representatives said Monday that the problem has become more serious in recent years. Terry Terrling, a co-signer on the original settlement agreement, said the fumes have gotten “much worse in the last five years.”

Jeff Sieg, a spokesman for Lehigh Hanson, which acquired Berkeley Asphalt in 2005, said the odor is not made by the production of the asphalt, but by the process of loading and unloading it into buyers’ trucks. Sieg said that, because asphalt has a short “shelf life,” it needs to be mixed and loaded close to the time of its use. For this reason, the plant’s permit allows it to operate around-the-clock daily so it can provide for night-time and early-morning projects.

The permit does, however, set limits on noise and odor emissions. Residents have expressed suspicion that the plant has violated the conditions of the permit to increase production of asphalt for the Bay Bridge project, leading to the recent aggravation of the issue.

The plant is also required to comply with Berkeley’s noise laws, which state that commercial projects may not “create a noise disturbance across a residential or commercial real property line” between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. on weekdays, and 8 p.m. and 9 a.m. on weekends.

Environmental activist Alejandro Soto-Vigil said this week: “The question that the residents have is: Has the city complied with their settlement agreement in ‘99? And was the corporation in violation of their use permit by increasing production without getting the revised permits or having any permits for having new materials, new hardware, new equipment?”

Soto-Vigil, who is an aide to Berkeley Councilman Kriss Worthington, and a member of the city’s Rent Stabilization Board, has announced he will challenge incumbent Linda Maio in District 1 this November.

Lehigh Hanson’s Sieg acknowledged that Berkeley Asphalt had been producing asphalt for the Bay Bridge project, but denied the plant exceeded the limits allowed by its use permit.

One resident said Monday that, last summer, she had been forced to stay inside and put tape around the edges of her doors to keep the smell out.

“I can’t open my door if it’s hot because of the fumes,” said Beth Montano, another resident. Montano said that when the wind blows in a particular direction she can see the fumes coming toward her like “white smoke.”

Responding to complaints of the visible emissions, Sieg said: “One of the complaints that people have is that they see some kind of emission, I think they call it fumes or vapors, that is emitted by the plant… and one thing I like to clarify with everyone is that what they’re seeing is actually steam. It’s literally steam that is produced as a result of heating up the rocks to produce asphalt.”

Soto-Vigil said that “at the end, what we really want to do is get air monitoring stations placed throughout Berkeley so we know what our air quality is.” He maintains that the fumes emitted by the plant are dangerous to Oceanview residents.

A representative for the City of Berkeley said that the plant has implemented measures to respond to residents’ complaints. According to the city the plant replaced its sound blankets to reduce noise in October 2013 and hired a professional odor consultant in September 2013. A more complete list of the changes shows a 11 efforts to reduce noise, odor and dust since September 2012, but residents are still not satisfied.

Maio said that if the plant’s changes do not satisfy the residents the city may have re-evaluate the plant’s use permit.

“You usually give people an opportunity to fix what’s wrong,” she said. “Every time I’ve received a complaint I’ve sent it on… and they say they’re going to do X, Y and Z, and then they do X, Y and maybe they don’t do Z, and then we go back again. But there’s only a certain limit to how much we’re going to let that happen before we go back to the Zoning Adjustments Board and look at their use permit.”

Maio added that the issue of emissions is technically not within her jurisdiction. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District, of which Mayor Tom Bates is a board member, regulates air pollution in Berkeley. The city and Maio do, however, have control over quality-of-life issues such as odors and noise.

Soto-Vigil said Maio has not been active in the efforts to resolve the issue.

“The politicians are doing nothing to prevent the particulate matter from hurting the residents,” he said. “What we want is information to know what we need to do next.”

A spokesman for the city said that the city will be meeting with a Lehigh Hanson senior executive later this month to discuss the issue.

Charles Siler is a summer intern at Berkeleyside. He grew up in the North Bay and now attends Tulane University in New Orleans.

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  • Oceanview Neigbor

    “Jeff Sieg, a spokesman for Lehigh Hanson, which acquired Berkeley Asphalt in 2005, said the odor is not made by the production of the asphalt, but by the process of loading and unloading it into buyers’ trucks.”
    Which is why the Writ issued in CBE v City of Berkeley, and Berkeley Asphalt’s Use Permit, required that all of the truck loading and unloading be completely enclosed and vented to the baghouse filter. Fifteen years later and it still isn’t done.

  • neighbor right next door

    For a lot of information about the pollutants emitted by an asphalt plant, see this article by the EPA:

    The plant’s spokesman is being disingenuous when he focuses on the steam emissions. Yes, it is “just” steam that you see, but there are many hazardous pollutants emitted along with the steam. Further, according to the referenced article, by far the bulk of pollution comes from the dryer and silo loading operations than from the load-out, by 10-100x.

    Does anyone know the annual production of this plant?

  • Oceanview Neighbor

    Their maximum permitted output is 250,000 tons in any 12 months, unless it’s been changed in the past 3 years.

  • guest

    Soto-Vigil, who is an aide to Berkeley Councilman Kriss Worthington, and a member of the city’s Rent Stabilization Board, has announced he will challenge incumbent Linda Maio in District 1 this November.

    I’m no fan of Maio but I can’t think of a single player in Berkeley politics who I think would make a worse replacement for Maio than Soto-Vigil.

    Can’t we get a regular workaday homeowner to run for this seat instead of continuing the practice of making the Berkeley city council a nest of politically incestuous back-scratching?

  • Guest

    It seems a little silly to worry about some funny smells from a plant that was operating long before you moved into the neighborhood when you’re right next to a pollution deathtrap like the 80/580 interchange. If you’re really that concerned about hazardous pollutants and particulates you probably shouldn’t live so close to a major freeway intersection that regularly backs up during commute hours.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    Yep. There’s probably a quarter inch of lead on everything in that neighborhood from the leaded gas era. Definitely the worst possible place to live if you’re worried about pollution.

  • William Thecrank

    Traffic-related air pollution drops to “ambient” levels at about 300 meters from major roadways. Though we don’t know neighbor right next door‘s exact address, we can be sure they don’t actually live “right next door” to Berkeley Asphalt & Ready Mix. I believe the westernmost residences in Oceanview are on 4th St., though there are only a handful. So everyone lives east of Fourth, which is just over 300 meters from 80.

    So, according to the evidence, traffic-related pollution from 80 really shouldn’t be a health concern for anyone living in Oceanview.

  • Josh

    While I am not opposed to folks exercising their right to know “what’s in the air” I hope and trust there is not an expectation that a business of this nature would be 100% scent free? I work, literally, next door and down wind. Yes, I do smell the plant emissions, as I walk to lunch. While the smell is not pleasant, I understand that the business has been in place long before the business I work for arrived. I also understand that a business of this nature will emit odors as part of the manufacturing process. ..Yes to transparency around “whats in the air”…No to unreasonable demands to “get rid of the smell”

  • Mistah Cassanova

    When you smell something you technically have atoms of that matter in your body. That “funny smell” is an accumulation of heavy metals, toxins, many carcinogens. The EPA recommends asphalt plants be located in rural areas away from people. BAAQMD inspectors have never seen anything like the situation in Berkeley anywhere else in the entire Bay Area. People are living, working, shopping only like 100 feet (or less) from asphalt and steel factories.

    Asphalt workers have 40-400% higher chance of cancer diagnosis. Remember all of those news segments about the Bay Bridge’s special asphalt? Where do you think it came from? Berkeley breathed the building of the Bay Bridge, we were fumigated.

    Yep, they were operating back in the 1950’s and guess what? Senior citizens in West Berkeley have passed away from cancer and dementia related to this pollution. Ever notice that the West Berkeley Senior Center closed and is now Meals on Wheels? The old time residents are hard to find because they are either dead or shut in. It is a shame that this has been ignored so long due to extreme greed and racism.

    So many people have been poisoned it will take super computers to go back and track what occurred. People who live in other cities and commute into Berkeley go home and die in other towns so it goes unnoticed. Bottom line, people are being poisoned. There are thousands of shoppers and workers on 4th Street and University Avenue and Solano Avenue unknowingly exposed to carcinogens. The 2 mile fall out zone of Berkeley Asphalt expands to the Marina, Albany,
    even UC Berkeley’s campus. This has got to stop!

    As far as 80/580, Gasoline is unleaded now, and the highways will soon
    be lined with Teslas. In the future the highway is a mute point except for its asphalt fumes on hot October days. There are so many people affected by unnecessary factory pollution that doctors in West Berkeley advise residents to move out at all costs. it is a shame; wake up!

  • preferrous

    There is an expectation that a business is compatible with its zoned use, and the zoning of surrounding structures.

    Nobody has “an expectation” that a manure factory is 100% scent free. Which is why they aren’t permitted.

  • preferrous

    Their hourly hand-wringing fee is stratospheric.

    Berkeley city hall is such a joke.

  • preferrous

    That is one of many restrictions on the output.

  • anotherguest

    >Senior citizens in West Berkeley have passed away from cancer and dementia related to this pollution.

    Do you have any documentation stating this or are you just pulling “facts” out of thin air?

  • EastBayer

    Right, because only homeowners should have political power. Let’s face it – there is no such thing as a “regular workaday homeowner” in Berkeley. If you own your home in Berkeley, you are certifiably rich.

  • Oceanview Neighbor

    There is also an expectation that they are operating under the constraints of their Use Permit, which is under the control of the City. The neighbors already litigated this problem, and our expert witness testified that the majority of emissions came from the transfer of hot asphalt and oil from train to tank, tank to mixer, and loading/unloading customer trucks, as confirmed by Mr. Seig in this article. The Writ of Mandate issued by the Alameda County Superior Court in 1999 (CBE v City of Berkeley 807882-5) stipulated by all parties, required Berkeley Asphalt’s Use Permit to be modified to include (among other mitigations):

    a. all truck loading operations are to be enclosed
    b. all truck loading operations are to be vented to the baghouse (filter)

    For 15 years the City continued to reassure us that the settlement and Writ were being followed to the letter. It’s only now, with that miracle of technology that is Google Earth, that we can zoom in on the plant operations and see that, although they have enclosed one loading bay, there are at least 3 loading bays that are not enclosed in any way, so therefore they’re also not filtered. Until they enclose all their truck loading operations, they are in violation of their Use Permit and the City needs to step in.

  • guest

    I think we can pretty much assume that all industry in Berkeley will be purged eventually. They may produce emissions that affect a subset of the population, or they may be less than carbon neutral, or they won’t have union jobs, or they buy Chinese parts that are objectionable, or they use BPA or some other “chemical” that is objectionable by an environmental group. Even if we attract “green” industry, they will make windmills that kill birds, or they will make solar panes that employ something toxic from an objectionable country. Let’s face it. Ultimately, Berkeley is not a place where anything can be made, other than opinions.

  • Oceanview Neighbor

    They agreed to enclose the truck loading operations, they didn’t. It’s the City’s job to ensure that the judge’s orders are carried out.

  • guest

    It always amazes me to see how many commenters on Berkeleyside hate liberals and hate Berkeley so much that they make comments that are completely out of touch with reality.

  • guest

    In what way were those comments “completely out of touch with reality”?

  • guest

    If you own your home in Berkeley, you are certifiably rich.

    100% wrong and totally out of touch. I have plenty of homeowning neighbors who are very poor by bay area standards, who either bought their homes long ago and are living on fixed incomes or who bought ramshackle “fixer-uppers” before the housing boom for pennies on the dollar.

    Just because YOU can’t afford something NOW doesn’t mean the housing landscape in Berkeley has always been this ridiculous.

  • Robert ANderson

    I never knew Berkeley had an asphalt plant. Crushed rock, yes. I’ve never smelled asphalt in that area.

  • Robert ANderson

    Admit it, many NIMBYs want Berkeley to be a “residence only” zone.

  • EastBayer

    What does my situation have to do with anything? Way to make things personal on a first reply!

    And your point is really irrelevant because a homeowner in Berkeley, by definition, possesses an asset worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Regardless of how he or she chooses to manage that asset, that is rich.

    But the larger point remains that you (if you are the original poster) feel that homeowners deserve more of a voice in local politics. That is an absurd and frankly ugly point of view..

  • Ch-ch-ch-change!

    Did any of the complainers move into the area before the steel casting plant was there or did they move to Berkeley and then immediately try to change it?

    There are no steel casting plants in Walnut Creek. Maybe they should move there.

  • guest

    …an asset worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Regardless of how he or she chooses to manage that asset, that is rich.

    Still 100% wrong and out of touch. A couple hundred thou’ in an asset like a home indicates someone is middle class, not rich. Are there rich people living in Berkeley? Sure, up in the hills or some of the other more rarefied areas probably. But you’re not going to find any rich people living in west or south Berkeley even though they may own their homes.

  • guest

    There may be lead in the soil from those days, but not in the air.

  • guest

    When I moved to California, there were high levels of greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore, according to your “reasoning,” I have no right to try to lower greenhouse gas emissions.

    Maybe you should move to Walnut Creek.

    You think that telling someone to move to Walnut Creek somehow refutes his argument, so I will apply the same brilliant “reasoning” to you.

  • guest

    Well Golden Gate Fields is a Manure Factory, and it is in Berkeley.
    For a long time there was a soil thing by aquatic park that smelled like manure, too.

  • Dallas

    I don’t think a “we were here first” is a very useful approach. That would be mess and lead to a “we can do what we want, we were here first.”. The facts are Pacific Steel Casting has violated it’s use permits (documented in city council and zoning board meetings) and they are a terrible neighbor. They also are a documented nuisance with literally THOUSANDS of air quality complaints pointing at their operation.

  • Guest

    So why would you choose to move to a neighborhood with a casting plant like that if you so strongly dislike them? Why choose to move next to something you don’t want to be near and then force it out of the neighborhood?

  • Mistah Cassanova

    Have a look for yourself at the Alameda County Corner’s office

  • tito

    This is a very expensive place to live, and not everyone can afford to move to the hills. As long as there is zoned industry near zoned residential, some of us are going to live closer to environmental hazards than others. We don’t have an equal amount of “choice” in where we live.

  • emraguso

    We have the scoop on an update: Berkeley Asphalt plans to invest in a new manufacturing process designed to reduce emissions and odors in its West Berkeley neighborhood starting in January, officials announced recently. Read more on Berkeleyside: