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 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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