Berkeley Asphalt, at 699 Virginia St., has reached an agreement with the city of Berkeley and plans to clean up its manufacturing process. Shown here, the concrete plant, which is no longer active. Photo: Mary Flaherty

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.

Its neighbors have complained about the noise, odors, and pollution from the plant for at least 20 years, most recently in June when a group questioned whether the plant has been violating its use permit with excess odors and noise.

What the company has decided to do is convert to a new technology called “warm-mix” asphalt, which produces paving material at a lower temperature than traditional asphalt, yet performs as well on the road and releases fewer pollutants into the air, according to company officials. The decision was the result of negotiations between the company and city staff that began last year.

“Since we’ve owned the operation, we have worked closely with the community and city, trying to be good stewards,” said Mike Roth, a vice president with plant owner Lehigh Hanson. “We hope we can improve relations with the group of neighbors.”

Berkeley Asphalt & Ready Mix was bought by the Hanson Company, now Lehigh Hanson, in 2005. Since 1955, the plant has been located on Virginia Street between Second Street and the railroad tracks in West Berkeley — a few blocks from the Fourth Street shopping district. The company produces asphalt daily, Monday through Friday, and occasionally on weekends, Roth said.

The smell from the asphalt is undeniable. Berkeleyside noted it from across the street, and neighbors on Fifth Street say it drives them indoors. Asphalt contains carcinogens and may pose a health risk to those who work with it. A 2011 monograph from the World Health Organization concluded that “occupational exposures to hard bitumens and their emissions during mastic asphalt work are ‘possibly carcinogenic to humans’.”

To put that in context: The monograph placed asphalt in a very broad category of substances that are “possibly carcinogenic to humans” along with many other everyday items, such as coffee and cellular phones, said said Russell Snyder of the California Asphalt Pavement Association. To date, the organization has only identified one substance of the thousands it has studied to be in the non-carcinogenic category.

Despite the odors, Berkeley Asphalt is not violating its emission limits, according to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. Berkeley Asphalt is operating in compliance with its permit, and is under its limits — even now, before transitioning to lower-emission technology, according to Aaron Richardson, a spokesman for the district. Its cancer risk threshold is “under 10 in 1 million,” said Richardson. “That’s not considered significant.”

“According to our studies, motor vehicles and trains, especially diesel trucks, pose a bigger health risk in the Bay Area, especially to people living within 1,000 feet of a highway,” he added.

Berkeley Asphalt & Ready Mix plant. Photo: Mary Flaherty
The Berkeley Asphalt & Ready Mix plant. Photo: Mary Flaherty

Manufacturing plants in Berkeley?

Still, why produce asphalt in a city? Well, it turns out, asphalt is a perishable product, and has to be kept hot before it’s put down. “That’s why you can’t buy it in San Diego, and put it up in Eureka,” said Snyder. “You need a local source.”

Berkeley Asphalt does all its business within a 25-mile radius, said Roth, the vice president. And 80% to 90% of that business is within a 10-mile radius, supplying paving material for roads in Berkeley, Albany, El Cerrito, Richmond and North Oakland, Roth said. The company also supplied asphalt for the new Bay Bridge.

“This industry needs to stay where materials are needed,” said Berkeley City Councilwoman Linda Maio, who represents District 1, where Berkeley Asphalt is located. And, added her aide, Lars Skjerping, it’s not “Berkeley’s style” to push the problems of industry to neighboring communities.

Maio said she took neighborhood complaints to city staff and the company, looking for solutions. Deputy City Manager William Rogers worked with Lehigh Hanson for more than a year to make improvements and reach an agreement.

The company said it has made nearly a dozen changes in the past two years to reduce noise and odors — many in response to concerns brought up by the city. The plant replaced its sound blankets to reduce noise in October 2013 and hired a professional odor consultant in September 2013, according to the city. A more complete list of the changes shows 11 efforts to reduce noise, odor and dust since September 2012.

The news about the switch to warm-mix asphalt production, though, apparently was not communicated by the city to one group of concerned local residents, called Oceanview Neighborhood Action. One resident was reportedly told by phone about the manufacturing changes, but others did not know about the news until Berkeleyside contacted them.

Alejandro Soto-Vigil, who is an aide to Councilman Kriss Worthington and who is running against Maio for the District 1 council seat, has worked recently with the neighborhood group to address problems with the asphalt plant. He called the change to warm-mix asphalt “a step in the right direction,” but said “it doesn’t address complying with the settlement agreement.”

A 1999 settlement between the company and neighbors calls for other measures, including enclosing the truck loading dock to reduce fumes, Soto-Vigil said.

The neighborhood group still plans to push the city to release documents detailing how it has enforced that agreement, as the group announced in June, he said.

New asphalt technology

According to the literature, warm-mix asphalt produces paving material at a temperature about 50 degrees lower than the 330 degrees required for typical “hot-mix” asphalt. It reportedly performs as well as hot-mix asphalt on the road.

The new production method should be cleaner and release fewer pollutants into the air.

“The lower mixing temperatures associated with WMA (warm-mix asphalt) result in lower emissions of volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulates,” according to a UC Pavement Research Center publication. “WMA also reduces worker exposure to asphalt fumes at the plant and during the construction of the asphalt pavement.”

The European Asphalt Pavement Association reported in 2010 that warm-mix asphalt production reduces emissions by anywhere from 10% to 70%, depending on the chemical.

“It should improve the situation for nearby residents, be better environmentally, and better for the actual construction workers who are laying down the asphalt,” said Maio.

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District representative praised the plans. “We would support any operational changes that reduce emissions,” Richardson said.

Kevin Gilmore Photo: Friends of Kenny Cottage Garden
Kevin Gilmore. Photo: Friends of Kenny Cottage Garden

Neighbor Kevin Gilmore, who lives on Fifth Street near Virginia, called plans for the new production process “a great thing.”

“I’m happy about what they’ve done, and I’m happy we’ve opened the door to discuss (more) changes,” Gilmore said. “A lot of the neighbors still have concerns. They want other remediations required in an earlier agreement.”

“We need to start somewhere,” he added. “This is a wonderful thing.”

One of the neighbors asked whether the new technology would require the use of more chemicals. A good question: It turns out some of the warm-mix technologies do use extra chemical additives.

However, Roth, of Berkeley Asphalt, said the plant will use a water-based technology. Water tends to be the best technology for lowering emissions, according to Frank Farshidi, who was, until recently, a researcher with the UC Pavement Research Center.

The warm-mix asphalt should also eventually benefit the company’s bottom line. Lower temperatures mean less fuel, and that saves money. Use of the new product has been rising fast in the United States.

Industry trend

A survey from the National Asphalt Pavement Association found that, in 2012, nearly one-quarter of all asphalt produced used the warm-mix technology. That was an increase of more than 400% from 2009.

“It’s been a game changer for our industry,” said Snyder of the state association.

In California, where there are about 100 asphalt plants, the new technology is just getting going, in part because Caltrans, perhaps the largest buyer, only recently approved use of warm-mix asphalt, Snyder said. He explained that asphalt production is driven by specifications from customers.

Roth said Berkeley Asphalt will spend $100,000 on new equipment this year and will begin producing the warm-mix asphalt on Jan. 1, 2015. Initially, he expects about half of its customers to buy warm-mix, so the company is likely to continue making some hot-mix asphalt next year. It will work on educating the rest of its customers about the new product, with the idea that warm-mix asphalt production will increase over time at the Berkeley plant.

“The product is widely used and the acceptance level is growing yearly,” Roth said. If the process goes well in Berkeley, Lehigh Hanson may convert its Sunol plant to warm-mix asphalt as well, Roth said.

For more about warm-mix asphalt see the Federal Highway Administration website and the UC Pavement Research Center.

[Clarification: Additional information about the World Health Organization’s study of substances in relation to asphalt was added after publication.]

Berkeley asphalt plant emissions dangerous, neighbors say (06.12.14)

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Mary Flaherty is a freelance reporter who has lived in the Berkeley area for since 1994. She earned a masters in journalism from UC Berkeley, and has reported for several local papers and copyedited for...