Foul Air Plagues Neighbors

The Mendocino County Air Quality Management District (MCAQMD) and Grist Creek Aggregates are negotiating a settlement agreement related to the company’s smelly asphalt plant in Longvale.

Air Pollution Control Officer Robert Scaglione said he thought an agreement would be reached some time after Thanksgiving.

After receiving many complaints of foul and noxious air from the plant’s neighbors since asphalt production began in September, the county slapped violations and fines on Grist Creek in October totaling $173,225.

On Nov. 6, Grist Creek Aggregates fired back. The Covelo-based company sued the Mendocino County Air Quality Management District and Air Pollution Control Officer Robert Scaglione. The company petitioned the court to set aside two notices of violations (NOV) and both fines, including one for operating a rubberized asphalt heating and blending unit without a permit.

The Grist Creek lawsuit argues that the company applied for and obtained approval for all the permits Scaglione said they needed at the time.

“They were warned,” Scaglione said. “They brought the machine in and still didn’t apply for a permit.”

Grist Creek applied for and was issued the new permit by MCAQMD and immediately resumed making rubberized asphalt for Caltrans work on Highway 101 near Laytonville. The new permit has provided no relief for the plant’s neighbors, who continued to be impacted when rubberized asphalt production ran all day on Saturday, Nov. 21, resulting in a new flurry of complaints to both MCAQMD and the California Air Resources Board (CARB).

“The ultimate goal for the district is to make sure they do operate in compliance and they don’t continue to be a public nuisance,” Scaglione said. “We have the full backing not only of the district regulations but of state law. They are either going to have to comply or not operate.”

Brian Hurt, owner of Grist Creek Aggregates, said he is no longer giving interviews to the press.

Meanwhile, his plant is still producing air that some neighbors say burns their eyes and throats.

Asphalt emissions filling Outlet Creek canyon
Asphalt emissions filling Outlet Creek canyon

One neighbor, fearing reprisals for speaking out, said that Hurt, through a mutual friend, “indirectly threatened to sue everyone near the plant who has complained.”

“I’d like to see him try,” Scaglione said, adding that all complaints are “privileged information” and would never be released unless they were subpoenaed.

Others in Longvale are worried that the asphalt plant, aided by the deep pockets of Mercer-Fraser, the Eureka-based company that owns and operates the asphalt-making equipment at the site, will intimidate the air district and county leadership into backing down and not enforcing existing noise, odor and public nuisance laws.

“Is it a slap on the wrist, or will it be the full force of the law to discourage Grist Creek and other regulated industries in the county from environmental law breaking?” said neighbor Glen Colwell, spokesperson for Friends of Outlet Creek. “If operators of other facilities who are in full compliance with their environmental permits were to see this new asphalt plant have penalties significantly reduced by the county, that would send a bad message and be unfair to the regulated community.”

Colwell recently retired after a 26-year stint as an air-monitoring manager for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. “These are serious violations resulting in asphalt smoke and burning rubber odors chasing neighbors from their homes. It’s my opinion that an asphalt plant of this size should never have been issued a permit to operate in this location because the emissions are trapped by the narrow topography of the Outlet Creek canyon.”

Scaglione said he cannot discuss details of the district’s talks with Grist Creek and Mercer-Fraser. But he insisted that the plant violations “have some serious consequences.”

The California Air Resources Board, known as CARB, is also monitoring the asphalt facility and is watching how Mendocino County handles the situation, according to Scaglione. He said that if the county’s actions aren’t enough to deter Grist Creek from operating safely, the state will make sure the facility gets the message that it can’t continue to violate the law.

“They do come in behind us,” Scaglione said. “They watch how we handle it to make sure it is a deterrent. That’s our goal, to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

Scaglione did not know how much longer Grist Creek would be working on the Highway 101 project, but he encouraged neighbors to come in and talk to him about the plant if they have fears or concerns.

He offered assurances that the air district monitors the plant on an “almost” daily basis. “We do have people driving in the neighborhood to confirm the complaints,” Scaglione said. “I’m hoping we will get this resolved soon.”

(Jane Futcher lives near the asphalt plant and is a member of Friends of Outlet Creek.)

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