What’s causing the stinky, sulfur smell tormenting people in Northwest Berkeley?

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District filed a violation against Berkeley Asphalt on Dec. 8 in response to complaints of a “burning, sulfurous” odor.

Berkeley Asphalt, which is believed to be the source of sulfurous smells in Northwest Berkeley. The image shows an office trailer unit and large asphalt producing machinery in the background.
Berkeley Asphalt and Berkeley Ready Mix companies at 699 Virginia St. on Dec. 22, 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos

Northwest Berkeley residents who have been enduring periodic wafts of stinky, sulfurous fumes for the last several months might have relief on the horizon.

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District received nearly 200 complaints about the sulfurous smell starting on Oct. 29, and on Dec. 8, filed a violation notice against LeHigh Hanson Berkeley Asphalt at 699 Virginia St, according to a document from the agency provided to Berkeleyside. In 2014, West Berkeley residents rallied at the facility to raise concerns over odors and noise, which they alleged had gotten much worse over the years.

City Councilmember Rashi Kesarwani, who represents District 1, began receiving reports of the stench in late October of this year. The strong odor comes and goes, she said, but was reported by residents as recently as this week.

In several messages to Berkeleyside, readers described the smell as “carbon dioxide-y, somewhat burny,” and sometimes even casting a haze over the sky. Others reported getting headaches and not being able to open their windows.


The BAAQMD violation came after an extensive investigation that included inquiries to East Bay Municipal Utility District, PG&E and the city’s Public Works Department. This ruled out many possibilities, like common sulfurous smells from natural decomposition at the Bay waterfront, or a broken sewage line.

Berkeley Asphalt, which is believed to be the source of sulfurous smells in Northwest Berkeley. The image shows an office trailer unit and large asphalt producing machinery in the background.
Berkeley Asphalt and Berkeley Ready Mix companies at 699 Virginia St. on Dec. 22, 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos

An air quality inspector went to the site in early November, but both the inspector and a plant manager at the location couldn’t track the odor to the facility, even though they smelled it up the street. The inspector later made the connection after multiple residents reported the “burning sulfur” smell on Dec. 6, and it was determined to be the same odor from November.

Berkeley Asphalt has been operating in the city since 1955, and was acquired by Texas-based LeHigh Hanson as a part of Hanson Aggregates in 2005, according to BAAQMD.

Jeff Sieg, a spokesperson for the Hanson Aggregates, responded to Berkeleyside’s inquiry with a statement on Tuesday. Sieg said the Berkeley facility is still looking into the cause of the smell and it’s currently unable to confirm what’s causing the odor, or why complaints started up in October.

“Our Berkeley Plant is committed to operating in a safe and responsible manner and will investigate the concerns referenced and will take appropriate actions as necessary to address any issues they identify,” Sieg said.

BAAQMD said in its document that it determined the smell would rise from the asphalt plant, travel downwind into Northwest Berkeley and settle over the neighborhoods.

It also identified a separate, sewage-like smell that’s coming from natural processes occurring at the Bay during King Tide season.

The asphalt facility will be closed for Christmas Eve and the holiday, as well as New Year’s Eve and the day of. Neither BAAQMD nor the company has released any information regarding health impacts of the asphalt pollution, or confirmed whether it’s the only source of the smell.

For now, BAAQMD is requiring the asphalt company to investigate the source of the smell. The company also applied for a permit to build a “blue smoke abatement system” and the air quality agency approved the permit on Nov. 30. The technology, which captures emissions from asphalt production, should be in place by early 2021, according to BAAQMD.

Kesarwani said the process to abate the noxious smell has been very frustrating for her and her residents, especially because West Berkeley has historically been impacted by redlining and environmental racism stemming from the neighborhood’s close proximity to industrial buildings.

Along with being an inconvenience, she said the odor has caused her constituents to suffer headaches, nausea and asthma attacks. She urged residents to call 1-800-334-6367 whenever they catch a whiff so that BAAQMD can respond.

The smell is particularly irksome for many as shelter-in-place orders make the outdoors one of the only respites during the COVID-19 pandemic. BAAQMD continues to break its record for most “Save the Air” days in a year this week after a spate of destructive wildfires, poor air quality and apocalyptic orange skies this fall.

“During the pandemic when so much has been taken away from us, it is my view that people should be able to go outside without having to worry about a noxious order,” she said, calling for prompt action from the air quality district. “It’s just very disappointing that our community is continuing to have to deal with this problem and we haven’t gotten a full remediation yet.”

Supriya Yelimeli is Berkeleyside's general assignment reporter. Email: supriya@berkeleyside.com. Twitter: SupriyaYelimeli. Phone: 510-585-8315.