Opponents of the rubberized asphalt plant on Outlet Creek thought for a moment on Friday, Jan. 29, that they had won their fight to close the Grist Creek Aggregates rubberized asphalt plant on the Covelo Road near Highway 101.
For five hours, speaker after speaker at the Ukiah City Council Chambers offered emotional testimony to the Mendocino County Air Review Board, whose job is to oversee of the county’s Air Quality Management District.
Many neighbors, some in tears, described the alarming impacts of the plant’s emissions on their health, on fish and wildlife, and on property values in their once quiet canyon.
They painted a disturbing picture of a community under siege, with some forced to stay indoors when the plant is operating, or to leave, eyes and throats burning, mouths covered by face masks or dish rags.
“What if it was in your neighborhood?” a neighbor asked the review board. “You would go insane.”
At the conclusion of sworn testimony and after several hours of public comment, Air Review Board Chair Thomas Johnson expressed great sympathy for residents,
“[The plant owners] don’t have any approval to pollute the skies of Mendocino County,” Johnson said. “That isn’t going to be tolerated.”
Opponents’ expectations were dashed when Johnson motioned to reject Friends of Outlet Creek’s appeal of Grist Creek’s permit application. The board deadlocked 2-2 when Eric Krane voted with Johnson, saying the witnesses’ testimony had “a great deal of emotion but not a lot of substance.”
Air Review Board members Marc Komer and Mark Johnson voted against the chair’s motion to reject opponents’ appeal.
A fifth board member, engineer George Rau, was recused by Friends of Outlet Creek because his firm worked for Grist Creek on engineering and permitting the Outlet Creek site for an earlier Grist Creek concrete batch plant. The company later withdrew the permit application.
The Air Review Board offered residents some hope Friday, voting unanimously to require Mendocino County Air Quality Control District to finish issuing violations and negotiate a resolution with Grist Creek by April 15. On that date, the Air Management District will report back to the Review Board so the board can decide whether to take further action.
Since September, when Grist Creek Aggregates opened its rubberized asphalt operation, the Covelo-based company has been slapped with more than $172,000 in fines by the state and county air districts for violations that include public nuisance and operating crumb-rubber asphalt processing equipment without a permit. Over the strong objections from neighbors and a legal appeal from Friends of Outlet Creek, on Nov. 17 the county’s Air Quality Control District issued Grist Creek a permit for the equipment they had been using illegally for over two months.
Caltrans requires rubberized asphalt for its Highway 101 repairs. Grist Creek is providing asphalt for Caltrans repairs south of Laytonville. The plant is currently taking a break and will go back on line when Caltrans resumes road repairs at the end of the rainy season.
Writer and environmentalist Kim Bancroft of Willits attended Friday’s hearing, afterwards describing the proceedings as “political theater of the absurd.”
“The political absurdity came into play when the ‘authorities’ present made it clear that administrative rules and procedures were more important than people’s lives or environmental safety rules,” Bancroft said.
Many in the audience groaned or booed when the Air Review Board ’s deadlock allowed the plant to keep its permit.
“It’s Flint all over again,” called one opponent, likening the county’s failure to protect residents in Longvale to the crisis in Flint, Michigan, where government has been slow to address the contamination of the public water supply.
Early in the Friday’s hearing, Cherry Creek Ranches property owner Glen Colwell, standing in for the Friends of Outlet Creek attorney, called five sworn witnesses to describe the negative impacts of the plant on their health and well being. About 20 others also spoke under oath in opposition to the plant.
Amy Lee, a registered nurse who lives above the plant on the north side of the canyon, testified in a soft but firm voice that the bad air from Grist Creek had triggered respiratory problems.
“I am confined in my home because of the constant stream of thick smoke spewing from the asphalt facility,” Lee said. “I cannot stand to be outside on my property to tend my garden, hike on and enjoy my property, and feed my chickens because of the air pollution.
“I can no longer open my windows when the asphalt plant is operating because of the oppressive odors and noxious smoke from melting rubber and asphalt production. I have experienced burning eyes, sinuses and throat when the exhaust smoke and fumes blow on to my property.
“Sometimes the smoke clouds hover onto my property for up to five hours a day, depending on the wind,” Lee continued. “I feel trapped in my home because my health suffers when I step outside and the asphalt plant is operating.
“It’s like living in a war zone,” Lee said. “My home is not safe. I can’t use my property. Even my life is in danger.”
Lee gave the board two letters from her physicians confirming the impacts of the fumes on her lungs. She said she has repeatedly raised her concerns to the county Air Quality Management District and the California Air Resources Board, or CARB. CARB responded, she said, with a phone call, while the Air Quality District sent her a form letter telling her Grist Creek Aggregates was under investigation.
Another neighbor, Claudia McNelis, testified that she and her husband must stay inside when the plant is running.
“Even inside,” McNelis said, “we cannot escape the sounds of rock and aggregate crushing and trucks and conveyors loading and unloading asphalt. Sometimes, the intensity of the rock crushing and daily operation of the asphalt plant causes the ground beneath our home to shake.”
Residents speculated that many of the problems with the plant stem from its location in a narrow canyon where there is little wind and where mountain ridges on both sides of the creek trap the smoke. To make their point, neighbors presented the board with a series of dated, poster-size color photographs showing white smoke hovering over the canyon.
Neighbors’ concerns erupted last March, when the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors fast tracked the rubberized asphalt plant without sending Grist Creek’s application to the Planning Department for an environmental review. The supervisors insisted that a previous asphalt permit issued to other owners more than a decade earlier (and subsequently removed) was sufficient to cover the new facility. Friends of Outlet Creek sued the Board of Supervisors, which rescinded its decision, leaving responsibility for the plant’s regulation with the Air Quality Management District.
Witness Linda Sobolewski told the Review Board that the earlier plant was much smaller and did not require the burning of rubber, which is very smelly.
“The site was sort of a sleepy gravel plant for the last 20 years,” Sobolewski said. “The scale of this enormous toxic plant is unbelievable. Mr. Hurt tried to reassure me that he is a good neighbor because he added cherry blossom oil into the mix.”
Sobolewski said her accountant told her to sell her property last April, after the plant won the okay to operate.
Many neighbors said they feared the plant had made their land and homes unsellable.
Robert Scaglione, the county’s Air Control Officer, defended his actions in granting Grist Creek Aggregates a permit. “Rubberized asphalt is being used all over the country,” he told the board. “The district conducted the review appropriately in compliance with laws and regulations.’
When board member Marc Komer asked Scaglione why the district hadn’t pulled the company’s permit when it discovered “excess releases” and plumes, Scaglione insisted that he had followed proper procedures and regulations.
Apparently unsatisfied with Scaglione’s reply, Komer said: “Either the laws that control air pollution are too vague, or there isn’t enough enforcement of existing rules.”
Komer asked Scaglione if he would want to live near the plant.
After a pause, Scaglione replied: “I don’t think that I would like living next to any asphalt plant.”
The attorney for Grist Creek, silent most of the day, told the Air Review Board its only role was to determine whether county Air Quality Management district followed the rules for permitting and not to decide whether to revoke Grist Creek’s permit.
Friends of Outlet Creek vowed to continue its fight to close the plant if the Review Board allows rubberized asphalt production to resume on April 15.
”We’re confident the community will continue to come out and support these efforts to stop this gross violation of public health and safety,” said Friends of Outlet Creek’s Lyn Talkovsky. “After all, clean air and love of the outdoors is why many of us are here.”
(Jane Futcher is a member of Friends of Outlet Creek and lives near the rubberized asphalt plant.)