Last update August 14, 2021
Recent extended air pollution episode
From late October 2020 through mid-February of 2021, neighbors of the Lehigh Hanson asphalt plant at 699 Virginia St, Berkeley, CA, some quite distant, suffering intense episodes of sulfurous air pollution most weekdays in the mornings and early afternoons.
That pollution is the latest chapter in a much longer history of air pollution from the asphalt plant, which has been operating at 699 Virginia Street since 1955 when it moved into Berkeley’s oldest neighborhood.
The asphalt plant and City of Berkeley agreed to a court settlement in 1999 with the Oceanview Neighborhood Association and Communities for a Better Environment. In 2015 the Berkeley City Council directed city staff to enforce the settlement and to impose immediate and corrective actions as needed. That settlement requires pollution controls (see pages 10-11). A 2019 video of asphalt emissions from unenclosed truck loading and this photo from Google Earth of unenclosed truck loading areas indicate large gaps in compliance.
Complaints and Notices of Violation
During this time neighbors reported over 200 odor pollution complaints to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD). After ruling out other potential pollution sources, BAAQMD issued a Notice of Violation to the asphalt plant for emissions from December 3, 2020.
The air pollution, and the complaints, continued unabated in the days following the Notice of Violation. BAAQMD issued an additional Notice of Violation to the asphalt plant for air pollution on December 21, 2020. BAAQMD issued two subsequent Notices of Violation on February 2 and 5, 2021.
City of Berkeley inspected Berkeley Asphalt on December 22, 2021. Based on findings from that inspection, the City of Berkeley issued a Notice of Violation on January 11, 2021 for failing to enclose their asphalt loading areas, a condition of their permit.
City of Berkeley Enforcement Gaps
Response deadlines set by the City of Berkeley for Berkeley Asphalt to take corrective actions were not met. Despite written warnings by the City of Berkeley of possible daily fines and additional violations, none were imposed by the City.
Additionally, the City missed its own target inspection date. Their inspection report from April 21, 2021 lacks supportive documentation such as photos to substantiate compliance claims.
Concerns with Adequacy of Constructed Plans
Berkeley Asphalt submitted plans to the City of Berkeley to construct new asphalt loading enclosures, though there are concerns that the new enclosure is not enclosed enough and may not be sufficient to fully address air pollution from the facility.
Air pollution monitoring needs
The United States Environmental Protection Agency describes typical asphalt plant emissions to include carcinogens, teratogens, respiratory irritants, and environmental pollutants such as: sulfur and nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), phenol, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), metals, and particulates. These pollutants contribute to global warming, acid rain, birth defects, acute and chronic illness and disease.
Every two years Berkeley Asphalt must produce a “source test” of air pollution at their facility. This test is a snapshot in time which cannot detect and correct air pollution between test dates. Further, the tests are overseen by Berkeley Asphalt (a conflict of interest) and may not be conducted at peak production and may not represent the complete pollution profile of the plant.
Other than source tests, BAAQMD relies heavily on odor complaints, though many dangerous air pollutants are odorless and colorless.
Ongoing continuous air pollution sensing and monitoring would provide documentation and alerts of air pollution problems in real time.
Strengthening City enforcement tools
The enforcement mechanisms of the City of Berkeley are insufficient to motivate compliance of large multinational corporations operating in Berkeley such as Lehigh Hanson, the owner of Berkeley Asphalt. $100/day fines might be an annoyance to that company, though in the most recent case, where the City did not follow-through on its own enforcement schedule, the fines come off as an empty threat.
City code enforcement and nuisance ordinances must be strengthened to give the City proper leverage to compel corrections. Use Permits must be updatable to allow mandating of new pollution control upgrades in the event of permit renewals and/or modifications. And City Departments must follow-through and be accountable to their own timelines and enforcement conditions.
Berkeley Asphalt is owned by Lehigh Hanson, a large multinational corporation based in Texas which touts environmental sustainability and being a “good neighbor,” qualities we want to see in Berkeley.