West Berkeley residents complain of “toxic fumes”

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West Berkeley residents are once again demanding more city action on complaints of emissions from a nearby asphalt plant, following a decades-long struggle between Berkeley industry and its residential neighbors.

Residents of the Oceanview neighborhood and surrounding area held a press conference Monday in front of City Hall, where they announced their submission of a Public Records Act request asking for proof of whether the city has taken action to mitigate impacts of the Berkeley asphalt plant, which is owned by Lehigh Hanson. Specifically, residents have asked for records regarding a 1999 settlement agreement which ordered the city to monitor efforts by the company to reduce noise, odors and other alleged nuisances.

Some improvement occurred after the settlement, but problems have picked up again in the last five years, according to Terry Terteling, who has lived in the area for more than 30 years. At the press conference, residents complained of “toxic fumes” from the plant.

“I can’t open my front living room windows,” said West Berkeley resident Beth Montano at the press conference. “I can’t stay out in my garden because of the fumes … this has been going on for 27 years.”

According to Councilmember Linda Maio, whose district includes the area affected by the plant, the city only has limited control over the asphalt company. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District — which has Mayor Tom Bates as a board member — regulates air emissions from industry, while the city only has authority over quality-of-life issues related to such emissions.

Residents have criticized the city for failing to respond to their complaints. But according to city spokesperson Matthai Chakko, the company has already met several times with city staff.

As a result of these discussions, the company installed a silencer on its exhaust stack last year. It has also been adding deodorant to incoming oil loads since 2012 and hired a professional odor consultant last year, among several other changes to reduce noise, odor and dust.

The city also plans to meet with a senior executive at the company later this month to further discuss these issues, according to Chakko.

According to Ralph Borrmann, a spokesperson for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, the Berkeley asphalt plant is in compliance with its permit requirements. Separate from the permit, the air quality district received 99 complaints last year about the plant, largely about odor. But the company hasn’t met the standard for being issued a public nuisance violation, which would require a certain number of odor complaints — usually five — to be confirmed in a 24-hour period.

“In terms of odors, there’s a lot more subjectivity involved,” Borrmann said. “In order to issue that public nuisance violation, it has to impact a wider spectrum of the public.”

Still, some Berkeley residents maintain that nothing has changed. Terteling said they will pursue legal action if necessary, and Oceanview resident Kate Stepanski said she fears for her daughter’s health.
Berkeley Rent Board Commissioner Alejandro Soto-Vigil — who is also running against Maio for City Council this November — helped West Berkeley residents facilitate the press conference, although he does not live in the same area. Soto-Vigil said he hopes for a community forum to discuss this issue.

Maio acknowledged that city staff may not have communicated thoroughly with residents and said she will prepare a report as soon as she can. For years, she said, the city has tried to negotiate between industry that provides “vital services” and the residents nearby.

“We’re doing our best to make sure that we be a good neighbor,” said Jeff Sieg, a spokesperson for the asphalt plant’s parent company. “But the reality is that it’s a manufacturing area.”

Melissa Wen is a news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @melissalwen.