Below is a synopsis written by Kevin Lien, MD – February 8, 2021
Both the City of Irvine and the Irvine Company knew of the hidden and concealed All American Asphalt (AAA) facility for decades and imprudently, perhaps recklessly, decided to build communities adjacent to the plant while failing to properly inform the public. The city approved and continues to approve the development of communities to within approximately 0.5 miles of the AAA plant without exercising due diligence, including a comprehensive review of the impact the emissions would have on the health and quality of life of present and future residents. The City of Irvine and South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) have refused to take any meaningful action for more than two years while dismissing hundreds of complaints and discounting resident concerns about potential health hazards from the toxic and carcinogenic asphalt emissions, including the recent revelation of concerning elevated exposures to volatile organic compounds (VOCs) within the impacted communities. We must address the accountability and liability of those who permitted the construction of homes and schools in such close proximity to an existing asphalt plant under suspect approval processes, of those who sold homes to unsuspecting buyers without full disclosure, and of those who refuse to protect the public.
This potential health crisis is reminiscent of the nascent stages of the Flint, Michigan water crisis, in which residents brought to the attention of city officials the foul-smelling, discolored, and unpalatable water. Physicians and academic researchers independently detected elevated levels of lead in the water and in the children. A concurrent Legionnaire’s outbreak resulting in several deaths was precipitated by this water crisis, which was propagated by the City’s mismanagement, including the ignoring, overlooking, discounting, and dismissing of public complaints and concerns by city officials, state officials, and environmental regulatory agencies, all of which have led to criminal charges and civil liability. Unfortunately, the outcome was a grave health crisis for an entire community, including an entire generation of children.
The AAA asphalt plant is a public nuisance and, more importantly, a potential health hazard for several nearby communities, including thousands of households, several schools and numerous parks. We have been and continue to be inundated by strong asphalt fumes and other chemical odors. These overwhelming, noxious asphalt and chemical odors awaken us at night, flood our homes and blanket our neighborhoods.
Studies suggest a causal link between elevated VOCs and serious health consequences, including respiratory problems, kidney damage, liver disease, nervous system disease, and cancer. Departments of health have also declared that some polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) may cause cancer and affect the eyes, kidneys, and liver.
The City of Irvine and the Irvine Company are ultimately culpable for allowing the development of communities close to an existing plant without exercising due diligence and failing to properly inform the public of this hidden and concealed facility which is within an area demarcated as a Preservation/Open Space. In fact, the city did not have this facility on any of its maps until after a recent city council meeting in October 2020 when the city council made the amendment after public pressure.
Prior to approving the development of communities, the city should have analyzed independent, peer reviewed safety and pollution studies, satisfied safety criteria, and instituted safeguards to ensure public health and quality of life on an ongoing basis. In conjunction with independent environmental experts, the city council should have thoroughly reviewed any Environmental Impact Report (EIR) which necessarily should have included a comprehensive, scientific analysis of the asphalt plant’s emissions, not only at the emission site, but also within the future community sites. The city has thus far not presented any relevant studies conducted which directly addressed the pollution impact and safety implications of the asphalt plant on the new developments adjacent to the asphalt plant. Despite continuing public outcry, the city continues to approve future development and has so far refused to effectively remedy the situation for current residents.
The Irvine Company and the home builders should be held liable for not fully disclosing All American Asphalt and its potential negative effects on health and quality of life to home buyers prior to 2019. Disclosures from before the fall of 2018 were inadequate in revealing, or did not discuss at all, the proximity of the plant, the malodors emitted, the toxic and carcinogenic nature of the pollutants, the possible adverse health consequences, including serious illness and cancers, and the negative impact on the quality of life. The homebuyers were not given full disclosure and thus were prevented from making a fully informed decision. Under growing public outcry and scrutiny, the Irvine Company changed its disclosure in the latter half of 2018, although it still lacks acknowledgement of potential health hazards and minimalizes diminished quality of life.
The Irvine Company and home builders advertise and highlight how the Villages of Irvine afford beauty, safety, outdoor amenities, and educational opportunities. Instead of living and flourishing in the idyllic and serene communities of northern Irvine as portrayed by the developers, we are continuously exposed to unhealthful and noxious pollutants and are in constant vigilance to protect our families, especially the children. With advertisements in foreign countries, the Irvine Company has also targeted foreign nationals, many of whom feel deceived and cheated with little or no recourse due to language and cultural barriers. Lacking the wherewithal to fight for environmental justice and the right to clean air, most residents remain silent and fearful. The failure to disclose the proximity of this asphalt plant with the resultant adverse impact on our health and quality of life is unacceptable.
AAA, with SCAQMD in implicit agreement, has argued that “All American operates pursuant to, and in full compliance with, permits issued by the SCAQMD that are written to ensure that the facility remains in compliance with all applicable emissions standards and to ensure that the public is protected from toxins through this same SCAQMD permitting process. This permitting process is rigorous…. Additionally, the SCAQMD evaluates all new data every four years and determines if a new or revised evaluation is necessary.”
These so called rigorously produced permits are antiquated and inadequate, obviously having failed to protect the public as evidenced by the public outroar. And despite public appeals for help since the fall of 2018, SCAQMD refused to collect and analyze air samples from within the affected communities until the agency finally relented under public pressure in December 2020 when a short-term air sampling and analysis program began.
Prior to December 2020, SCAQMD did not have a monitoring station within the city limits. Of note, the two closest monitoring stations are in Mission Viejo and Long Beach. How could SCAQMD scientifically quantitate and qualify the asphalt plant emissions with confidence when there were no monitors within the communities abutting the asphalt plant until December 2020? We directly asked SCAQMD in phone conversations and via email to collect air samples from within the impacted communities for analysis. After initially agreeing to begin an air sampling program with the help of volunteer residents in October 2019, superiors within the agency suddenly terminated the program. The agency refuses to say who gave this directive. Instead, they insisted on sending inspectors to utilize their sense of smell, which is completely nonobjective and incapable of analyzing and characterizing the pollutants. Moreover, the inspectors usually do not respond immediately. The most common scenario is a 2- or 3-hour time lag, sometimes not even responding until the next day or never.
Dean Baker, MD, MPH, Professor Emeritus of Medicine and Public Health at UC Irvine, states that the city, AAA and the developers must share responsibility in developing comprehensive air monitoring and exposure characterization followed by taking appropriate actions to ensure that the facility eliminate or control emissions that could cause adverse health effects AND nuisance odors. Any plan for community air monitoring developed by the “responsible parties” needs to be reviewed in advance by independent experts.
The City of Irvine, SCAQMD, and AAA would have the public believe that they have expeditiously and effectively worked to resolve this situation. Of note, the city, the Irvine Company, and SCAQMD were notified by the authors in October/November 2018. One year later, in October 2019, with no significant action taken by the city nor SCAQMD, letters was sent via email and certified mail to the following: the Irvine City council members, including the mayor; the city department; SCAQMD officials, including all the board members and Health Effects Officer; Congresswoman Katie Porter; and Orange County Supervisor Don Wagner. Neither the city nor SCAQMD has proceeded with any meaningful action since they were first notified in 2018. As of today, we as a community still suffer from frequent noxious odors and possible adverse health effects.
Without more comprehensive monitoring, we cannot characterize the air we breathe, the quantity and quality of the pollutants, both innocuous and dangerous. The city cannot allow AAA and SCAQMD to operate under the unproven assumption that the air is clean and safe. It must be proven that it is clean and safe. The city is the last line of defense for its residents.
The City of Irvine failed to protect the residents by approving the development of homes and schools with questionable and deficient review processes. The Irvine Company and home builders failed to properly disclose the asphalt plant with its noxious and toxic emissions. And SCAQMD failed in its stated primary mission: “To clean the air and protect the health of all residents in the South Coast Air District through practical and innovative strategies.”
Under public pressure, the city of Irvine recently hired a consulting firm, Ninyo & Moore, to monitor and analyze the asphalt plant’s emissions. The UCI advisors expressed concerns, including the limited scope of work, the lack of transparency, the involvement of legal counsel by the City, the possible bias and conflict of interest of the consultant company whom the City hired in a no-bid situation, the insufficient power of the study’s design to extrapolate such limited data to chronic exposure and to come to any definitive conclusion regarding health risk assessment, the uncertainty of full community review at each major step with expert advisors representing the impacted community, the need for a more extensive and comprehensive monitoring program, and the urgency for a more robust health risk assessment. Some notable deficiencies include the insufficiency of short-term sampling of 24 hours to give an accurate understanding of long-term trends, especially given the reported randomness of the odor problem. And this short-term sampling cannot be used to extrapolate to annual averages and long-term chronic exposures.
Similar deficiencies were noted in SCAQMD’s short term air sampling and analysis program. Given the very limited sample size, the study has insufficient power to accurately determine health risks of chronic exposure to pollutants while questionably trying to account for variables such as meteorologic factors that change seasonally and daily, changing production volumes of the asphalt facility, possible changes in the asphalt plant’s output depending on what they are currently producing, variability in the asphalt plant production schedule, locations of the sampling, volumes of sampling, numbers of samples, the timing of sampling, sampling during odor events and during elevated VOC levels, etc.
The data collected in conjunction with the UCI advisors demonstrate exposures to elevated average VOC levels with spatial and temporal variation. The demonstrated spatial and temporal variations necessitate a more comprehensive sampling protocol: testing at a greater number of locations throughout the community with a greater number of samples, i.e., more samples taken from more locations over a greater period of time to capture the necessary data to accurately extrapolate to annual (or lifelong) averages and to long-term chronic exposure risks.
On December 16, 2020, we sent an email with a letter attached from Dean Baker, MD, MPH, Professor Emeritus of Medicine and Public Health at UC Irvine. This email was sent to the City Manager’s office, to Mayor Khan and each city councilmember. Hard copy letters were subsequently sent to Mayor Khan and the city councilmembers.
The summary of Dr. Baker’s letter is as follows:
“I am writing to recommend and urge the Irvine City Council to establish an independent scientific oversight panel to provide advice and technical recommendations to the City and its contractors, other agencies and stakeholders, and community residents regarding assessment of potential toxic chemical exposures and health risks to nearby residents of the All American Asphalt facility in north Irvine. It is essential that the exposure assessment be robust and comprehensive in order to fully characterize potential health risks. It is also important that the process of conducting the exposure assessments, interpreting the findings, and developing a health risk assessment be open and transparent, so the impacted residents can be confident that the City and its agents are acting in their best interests. An independent scientific oversight panel can help ensure that the technical assessments are robust and valid.
In addition, Professor Wu and colleagues provided direct reading instruments to nearby residents to allow measurement of the total volatile organic compound (VOC) and fine particulate matter exposure. The findings have documented elevated exposure to VOCs in communities near the facility with substantial variation across sampling locations and over time. Based on our review of the scope of work (of Ninyo and Moore) and these initial findings, we believe the air monitoring exposure assessment plan proposed by the City contractors is not sufficiently robust to fully capture the spatial and temporal variations of the toxic chemical exposures or characterize potential health risks to nearby residents.
Therefore, we recommend that the City establish an independent scientific oversight panel to provide its professional assessment and technical recommendations to the City, other stakeholders, and the community residents. This recommendation is based on sound public health principles and practice… This oversight committee is needed because so far there has not been robust exposure monitoring in the community nor has the decision-making process been sufficiently open and transparent to address the concerns of impacted residents.
The panel should meet as needed in a public venue with appropriate social distancing to present its technical reviews and allow the public to comment and ask questions. I suggest that UC Irvine professors with particular expertise in environmental exposure sciences, environmental epidemiology, toxicology, and health risk assessment should be appointed to the panel. I am willing to recommend names of potential panel members. In addition, we could recommend professors from UCLA and USC who also have outstanding scientists with these areas of expertise.”
We have repeatedly asked that the City of Irvine moderate a public special study session to facilitate a robust public discourse with an independent scientific oversight panel, SCAQMD, city consultants, the UCI advisors, and impacted residents in attendance to establish a consensus assessment and plan to ensure public health and safety.
After meeting with concerned residents and the UCI professors and researchers, Councilmember Larry Agran forwarded a memorandum on January 20th requesting a City Council Study Session regarding the continuing operations of the AAA plant. Unfortunately, Mayor Khan hastily rejected this memorandum.
At the recent city council meeting on January 26, 2021, Mayor Khan was dismissively quick to lay the blame on others for the continuing adverse impact the asphalt plant has on nearby residents while continuing to neglect her duties as Mayor of Irvine by denying residents a fair, open and transparent means to finding a solution to this potential health hazard. In response to Councilmember Larry Agran’s remarks on his memorandum requesting a City Council Study Session, Mayor Khan retorted, “I’m going to stress that the people on this council are not the ones that allowed the building of those homes next to that asphalt plant, and we know exactly who did, and I think it’s very important for the public to know as well… but this council minus one person is not the one that approved the homes there in that area…”
Councilmember Agran responded, “You have proceeded to debate and discuss this issue when I simply made announcements. Now if you want to debate and discuss it and involve the public, then for heaven’s sake, put the matter on the agenda at a special study session, and we can debate and discuss who did what, when, who’s responsible for what and how we move forward.”
As the population density increases in the surrounding environs, previously issued permits and agreed upon air emission standards need to be reviewed and modified accordingly to ensure public health and quality of life. The asphalt plant was established at this location decades ago, a time in which this area was unpopulated. Since then, new communities with thousands of homes, several schools, and innumerable open parks have been approved and developed. As more people have moved unwittingly closer to the asphalt plant within the last few years, hundreds of complaints have been lodged, resulting in several citations issued by SCAQMD. These complaints prove that current regulatory standards and code enforcement have failed to protect the communities from a public nuisance and, more importantly, from a potential health hazard.
SCAQMD and the city need to protect the public’s health by revisiting the currently accepted emissions standards and updating the regulatory standards and permitting process to reflect the most up-to-date scientific, medical, and epidemiological knowledge. The city needs to establish ongoing, independent, and transparent analysis of the emissions and continuous review of public complaints. Failure to meet either metric, public health or public nuisance, necessitates relocation with help from the city and developers.
Non-Toxic Neighborhood’s advisor Phil Landrigan, MD, MSC, FAAP emphatically states, “An asphalt plant can never safely coexist next to neighborhoods and schools. Pregnant women, infants and young children are especially vulnerable to toxic chemicals in their environments. Even extremely low-dose exposures during these vulnerable periods in early life can result in lasting damage. This is why it is so important to protect the most sensitive among us. By protecting them, we preserve the health of all.”
Despite being cognizant of potential health hazards and of the ongoing public outcry, the City of Irvine continues to approve the development of communities and parks to within approximately 0.5 miles of the facility without exercising due diligence. Why has the city refused to establish an independent scientific oversight panel? Why has the city refused to call for a special study session to protect the public? Why does it seem as if the city is obstructing the path to safe, clean air?
It is fundamentally wrong that it is a group of concerned citizens, instead of the city, who is spearheading the effort to ensure the public’s safety. Concerned citizens have banded together with UCI advisors to collect data on the plant’s emissions, to call upon the city council to take action, and to disseminate information about the asphalt plant to unsuspecting home buyers and to current residents. These actions have led to the theft and removal of citizen yard signs by unknown individuals and to the stalking by an Irvine Company representative at public protests and at a private meeting involving city officials, city consultants, residents, and UCI advisors.
The city council was elected by the public to represent them and not others, such as the Irvine Company, home builders or AAA. Prior to the November 2020 municipal election, Councilmember Khan and candidates Tammy Kim and Larry Agran specifically stated in meetings, communications, and a recorded webinar that they are the residents’ advocates and strongly support working towards a remedy for residents. After the election, Mayor Khan and Councilmember Tammy Kim have either remained silent or have refused to take meaningful action. Only Councilmember Larry Agran has been overtly supportive. Councilmembers Mike Carroll and Anthony Kuo have remained virtually silent and uncooperative. It is not only incomprehensible and reprehensible but also disappointing and exasperating that a group of elected officials, excluding Larry Agran, whose main responsibility is the safety and health of city residents, has refused to even broach the subject in a public study session while ignoring the mounting evidence of a potential health hazard and public pleas for help. Shirking the duties and responsibilities of the mayorship while blaming and reprimanding others, Mayor Khan continues to deny Irvine residents the right to a fair, open, and transparent discussion regarding the AAA asphalt plant and its adverse impact on the community, including potential health hazards.
The city issued this statement on December 9, 2020: “The City of Irvine holds itself to high standards. It encourages robust discussion of important public issues, and it disapproves of actions that silence the voices of those with opposing points of view.”
The city council majority’s actions stand in defiance of the statement’s spirit: it clearly discourages, suppresses, and precludes robust and transparent discourse and participates in the censorship and silencing of the public’s voice.