Beginning late October 2020, neighbors of the Lehigh Hanson asphalt plant at 699 Virginia St, Berkeley, CA, some quite distant, started suffering intense episodes of sulfurous air pollution most weekdays in the mornings and early afternoons.
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 22, 2020.
The current situation 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), not all of which have been installed, including fundamental ones like fully enclosing and venting asphalt truck loading facilities. This is plainly observable in this 2019 video of asphalt emissions from unenclosed truck loading and this photo from Google Earth of unenclosed truck loading areas.
The City of Berkeley should designate the asphalt plant a Public Nuisance and suspend or revoke its Use Permit. Similar situations are occurring in Irvine California where an asphalt plant is under investigation for air pollution, and in Carson City, Nevada, which is considering revoking the use permit for a polluting asphalt plant.
Additional mitigations beyond those in the 1999 settlement should be included to meet today’s standards for state of the art emissions controls.
Air pollution is composed of both odorous and visible pollutants, as well as invisible and odorless constituents. BAAQMD relies too heavily on complaints, investigators equipped with little more than their nostrils, and data provided by the polluter (a clear conflict of interest) to regulate air polluters.
Air pollution sensors and monitors are needed to truly understand air pollution emissions from sources like the asphalt plant. The asphalt plant should employ continuous monitoring for sulfur dioxide and other target pollutants. These monitors would keep a running data-log and connect to alarm systems so that pollution events can be stopped in real time, and past pollution patterns can be analyzed for improved management. Additional data should come from pollution sensors strategically positioned through the neighborhood surrounding the asphalt plant to measure and record sulfur dioxide and other target pollution emissions.