Jim Houle vs. Ron Epstein: Paved with Good Intentions and Response

Redwood Valley

Ron Epstein’s post Why The Harris Quarry Asphalt Plant Is A Bad Idea, also published in the Ukiah Daily Journal, attempts to explain why he thinks the plan for an asphalt hot mix plant at the Harris Quarry site south of Willits is a really bad idea. The proposal is by Northern Aggregates, a small Willits-based firm in the basalt and crushed stone business for over 20 years with less than $3 million in yearly sales and employing 25 people. Their application for a permit was turned down two years back and has now been scaled back to eliminate the companion ready-mix concrete batch plant and by restricting the life of the plant to 30 year life rather than allowing operation the site until the “end of life” of the quarry, which could be 70 years from now. A new EIR will by ready by October and the public will have 45 days to challenge it before submittal to the Board of Supervisors.

Ron Epstein, getting off the first salvo against this yet unpublished plan argues that there are: (1) serious cancer risks from asphalt fumes; (2) That it would seriously pollute the greater Ukiah area with these carcinogens; (3) That while the original EIR concluded that health and odor were insignificant, it did not take into account the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as benzene derivatives, the major source of carcinogens. The fourth (4) criticism is that the revised EIR is basically inadequate. The asphalt plant being considered under the new EIR is no different from that which was evaluated two years ago so I will respond to Epstein’s critique using the old EIR as a basis. Each of his charges is easily dismissed by anyone willing to take the time to read the 263 pages of the 2007 EIR, and to comprehend what he or she is reading. Admittedly, not many of us have either the time nor the technical background required. As a retired Professional Chemical Engineer, I have the time and experience working in oil refineries and asphalt plants, so here goes.

Pure asphalt is produced from the “bottom of the barrel” in an oil refinery. It contains all the heaviest elements of crude oil, those that do not vaporize at moderate temperatures, as does gasoline, diesel oil and kerosene. It would be trucked to the Harris Quarry hot mix plant while being kept warm to keep it from solidifying. There it would be mixed in a rotary kiln with aggregate that has been mined at the quarry, and then stored in a silo prior to use. The new state-of-the-art plant at the Harris Quarry, will be equipped with filters to efficiently remove particulates, and with various control and air quality monitoring systems. It will be technically and environmentally far superior to the two existing hot mix plants along the Russian River in Ukiah and probably will result in their being shutdown.

Responding to Mr. Epstein’s specific charges: (1) The Toxic Air Contaminant Emissions (TACs) from the new plant, are estimated to be far, far below the levels that could be of harm to any residents in the vicinity. The State and Federal criteria define as a significant risk the possibility that ten out of every one million people living in the project area would suffer from cancer caused by the asphalt plant if it were operated at capacity for the 70 years of an average person’s life. The calculation shows that at the nearest site, a trailer park, 0.27 persons would risk cancer over their life time. (Never mind that there are probably fewer than one hundred people living in this remote area 7 miles south of Willits and 20 miles from Ukiah and it would be physically impossible to cram one million into the immediate area.)

Mr. Epstein’s second charge, is that it would seriously pollute the greater Ukiah area with carcinogens and represents a significant risk to the health of large numbers of county residents. I have no idea how he came to this sweeping conclusion if he read the EIR and its appendices carefully. There would be no significant pollution of the greater Ukiah area from this asphalt plant as demonstrated by the air dispersion modeling techniques employed in the EIR. The third charge is that the EIR did not take into account the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as benzene. The volatile organics, mainly petroleum derivatives, are a large portion of the TAC emissions category mentioned in item 1 above. They are fully considered although Mr. Epstein seemed to have missed it. The toxic consequences of the VOCs are not significant.

In his final complaint, Mr. Epstein concludes that the EIR fails to consider the cumulative buildup of toxics from a multiplicity of sources over one’s lifetime and that it does not consider the magnified effects of toxics upon infants and old people. He wonders about the consequences of failure of air filtering systems and other equipment, and the ability of the county to adequately monitor the plant operation. He also worries about an overturned asphalt truck on Highway 101. Please note here that hot mix asphalt is routinely applied to Highway 101 and county roads, an application not much different from an accidental dump on the roadway and not considered an environmental disaster by our Transportation Department.

After this discussion, Mr. Epstein complains that so-called safe pollution levels set by the federal government for toxic substances “are believed to be grossly inadequate by mainstream communities of medical and scientific researchers”. On the contrary, we have often heard complaints from industry that the toxic emissions standards are impractical and far too severe. I would like to see some references to these “mainstream communities” who apparently think ten cases of cancer in ten million over a lifetime is not a strict enough criteria. If he wants to tighten up the regulations, then he should do battle with the EPA in Washington and the State Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment in Sacramento, not with Northern Aggregates in Willits. What would he have us do – refuse to approve all industrial projects in Mendocino County while he gets the EPA and the State to mend their ways?

I do not like to see people’s fears raised by means of unsubstantiated charges published in our local media. I’ve talked with Ron Epstein, a most reasonable man, and hope that he will respond to my letter and try to be more careful in his future letters. Maybe come October, we can arrange a public debate?

Ron Epstein responds with the following info:


Asphalt plants mix gravel and sand with crude oil derivatives to make the asphalt used to pave roads, highways, and parking lots across the U.S. These plants release millions of pounds of chemicals to the air during production each year, including many cancer-causing toxic air pollutants such as arsenic, benzene, formaldehyde, and cadmium. Other toxic chemicals are released into the air as the asphalt is loaded into trucks and hauled from the plant site, including volatile organic compounds, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and very fine condensed particulates.[EPAAsphalt Fumes are Known Toxins. The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states “Asphalt processing and asphalt roofing manufacturing facilities are major sources of hazardous air pollutants such as formaldehyde, hexane, phenol, polycyclic organic matter, and toluene. Exposure to these air toxics may cause cancer, central nervous system problems, liver damage, respiratory problems and skin irritation.” [EPA]. According to one health agency, asphalt fumes contain substances known to cause cancer, can cause coughing, wheezing or shortness of breath, severe irritation of the skin, headaches, dizziness, and nausea. [NJDHSS] Animal studies show PAHs affect reproduction, cause birth defects and are harmful to the immune system. [NJDHSS] The US Department of Health and Human Services has determined that PAHs may be carcinogenic to humans. [DHHS]

Health Impacts & Loss of Property Value. The Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League (BREDL), a regional environmental organization, has done two studies on the adverse impacts on property values and health for residents living near asphalt plants. A property value study documented losses of up to 56% because of the presence of a nearby asphalt plant. In another study, nearly half of the residents reported negative impacts on their health from a new asphalt plant. The door-to-door health survey found 45% of residents living within a half mile of the plant reported a deterioration of their health, which began after the plant opened. The most frequent health problems cited were high blood pressure (18% of people surveyed), sinus problems (18%), headaches (14%), and shortness of breath (9%). [BREDL]

Flawed Tests Underestimate Health Risks. In addition to smokestack emissions, large amounts of harmful “fugitive emissions” are released as the asphalt is moved around in trucks and conveyor belts, and is stored in stockpiles. A small asphalt plant producing 100 thousand tons of asphalt a year may release up to 50 tons of toxic fugitive emissions into the air. [Dr. R. Nadkarni] Stagnant air and local weather patterns often increase the level of exposure to local communities. In fact, most asphalt plants are not even tested for toxic emissions. The amounts of these pollutants that are released from a facility are estimated by computers and mathematical formulas rather than by actual stack testing, estimates that experts agree do not accurately predict the amount of toxic fugitive emissions released and the risks they pose. According to Dr. Luanne Williams, a North Carolina state toxicologist, 40% of the toxins from asphalt plant smokestacks even meet air quality standards and for the other 60% of these emissions, the state lacks sufficient data to determine safe levels.

BE SAFE: Take Precautionary Action to Protect Our Ukiah Community
from Asphalt Plant Air Pollution~

Harris Quarry Asphalt Proposal Updated 3/6/09

In January, Jack Magne of Keep the Code published an op ed in the Willits News with an aerial photograph of the Harris Quarry. The piece referred to an engineering report showing that Northen Aggregates, the owner operator, had removed substantially more material from the site than permitted or reported. Last year, the county planning department cited NAI for exceeding its extraction permit and NAI agreed to pay the county an undisclosed settlement.

In early February, the company responded by hiring former supervisor Hal Wagenet as its public spokesperson and governmental representative charged with “sheparding” the quarry expansion and batch plant project through the county approval process. The Draft Environmental Impact Statement was to be approved last year so former supervisor Wattenburger could  supply the swing vote, but it has since been withdrawn with no known re-emergence date.

In a Willits News interview, Wagenet claimed the company, the product and the project was “environmentally superior” and cited his membership in Willits Economic Locallzation as his environmental credentials. MENDOCINO  COUNTRY has asked WELL to respond.

Late last yearr, BOS certification of EIR on the 100-year permit for the Harris Quarry expansion and batch asphalt plant on the Ridgewood Grade between Ukiah and Willits next to Highway 101 was withdrawn by applicant Northern Aggregates  pending mofication.

As it stands, the current EIR is woefully inadequate, containing substantially no believable data on cumulative impacts, for example.

In 2006, the applicant wanted to permit a processing plant for stone and concrete, but found that county zoning didn’t allow it. So on the way to blasting throught to approval of its own project, it proposed the rezoning of all the county’s quarries to permit industrial facilities as well.

Organized community opposition resulted in supervisors requiring an EIR on both the proposed Mineral Processing Combining District and their specific project at Harris Quarry.

The quarry’s current operations are taking place under a permit that expired nearly 2 years ago. In addition, the company is extracting material in excess of the permitted rate of 75,000 cubic yards per year. The county  issued a notice of violation in July of 2008, but extraction continues apace.

A local group of concerned citizens == Keep The Code — hired a professional engineer, Richard B. Davis, a specialist in aerial photography surveying, to fly over Harris Quarry to determine volume of rock extraction over the previous fourteen years. The yearly average, over and above county permit limits was a troubling 45 million pounds.

The survey was performed with a Cessna 310 mapping plane which is equipped with a GPS controlled Wild-Leica cartographic camera. Comparison with the earlier base topographical mapping data resulted in extraction estimate with a plus/minus 4 % accuracy. Use of “short tons”, (2000 lbs.), instead of long tons, made the estimate very conservative.

By itself, over extraction results in excessive and non-permitted truck trips at the dangerous intersection of the quarry entrance and Hwy 101 at the top of the Ridgewood Grade.     Serious accidents involving these trucks are a significant concern.  Furthermore, the over extraction of rock creates non-permitted and excessive dust (particulate), noise and degradation of water quality in the headwaters of a major tributary of the Russian River.

Northern Aggregates provides unverified reports on its annual extraction to the county planning and building department on the “honor system,” but the county is forbidded by state law from making the information public for “proprietary” reasons.

Keep the Code is publicizing the photo in order to galvanize public opposition to the project and is soliciting funds to reimburse volunteer members for the survey which reportedly cost thousands of dollars.

Asphalt plants are sources of air pollution that may emit significant levels of both particulate matter and gaseous volatile organic compounds (VOCs) considered to be dangerous to human health, including hydrogen sulfide, benzene, chromium, formaldehyde, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

Charles Martin of Keep The Code stated recently: ” The asphalt plant alone would disperse more than 30,000 pounds of yearly volatile organic compounds (VOC), and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), both toxic, carcinogenic and mutagenic (birth defects)-substances that will condense in the cooler atmosphere and precipitate downward over the headwaters of both river systems.” The Harris Quarry is located near the watershed boundary of two major North Coast river systems- the Russian River and the Eel River.  Ground water pollution would flow down from this ridgetop location into both drainages with negative impacts on wildlife and fish.

The 300-ton/hour hot mix asphalt plant project as it stands now would produce also produce air emissions impacting agricultural, residential and school property.

Simultaneous with the release of the photograph, County public health physician Dr. Marvin Trotter commented: “I am concerned with the level of pollutants associated with this project, and strongly believe further study of this matter is essential”

Round the clock operations would create noise, visual impacts in a highly scenic area and light pollution at night.

The project would obtain and use up vast quantities of spring water from the site. In addition, there would be increased risk of traffic accidents and fire from petroleum fuel trucks feeding the plant.

Expedite Cancelled:
On October 21, the BOS unanimously granted Leonard Charles, its consultant on the project an additional $57,000 for changes to its contract in order to include the following. The expedite was subsequently retracted as a a result of citizen outcry over providing an opportunity for lame duck supervisor Wattenburger to form a third vote for approval. The accelerated schedule would have required the consultants to work through Thanksgiving weekend. Despite the withdrawal, the funds were spent.

• The applicant was proposing to construct replacement channels  for wetlands on the site. The effects of constructing these wetlands and their value as mitigation for wetland loss must be reviewed.
• The applicant proposed additional improvements to Highway 101 which will have different impacts on highway operations and will require additional roadway widening
• The applicant prepared a revised traffic report that includes a different number of trips than the applicant originally provided. This changes the traffic impacts,
• The applicant provided a new, and different, list of heavy equipment and generators that will be used on the site. This required a reassessment of air quality impacts. Because the number of truck trips has increased, the air quality analysis of emissions from trucks must be modified.
• The applicant provided additional data about site drainage and the design and operation of the bioretention swale.

New Board:
Approval of both the renewal of the existing quarry expansion and the processing zone overlay was pretty much a done deal under the 2007-8 BOS for whom private property rights were absolute.

The new board also believes in Ownership Uber Alles, but with better review. Second district supervisor McCowen has stated he believes the zoning revision should be separated from the quarry permit renewal.
Keep the Code is the local citizen watchdog group that lobbied for the EIR and opposes the expansion and MPCD. The steering committee of KTC is Charles Martin, Jay and Lael Fraser, Roni McFadden, Dori Cramer and Sheila Jenkins.

They urge all county residents contact their own supervisor with concerns over this project which in the wake of the closures of Masonite and Georgia Pacific will become the single most significant pollution point source in the county.

They are appealing for funds to pay legal and organizing costs. Donations may be sent to KTC,  Keep The Code,  P.O.Box 598, Ukiah.Checks should be made out the the WILLITS ENVIRONMENTAL CENTER with Keep the Code in the memo line.     Once the EIR is certified, the group will have only 30 days to sue.. For more information, contact Charles Martin at 459-9005 or email

One Comment

Although Jim Houle and I happen to be on different sides in regard to this particular issue, I am very impressed with his sincerity and commitment to our community. I would also like to thank him to contributing to public awareness of the issue. Differences of opinion on a public issue doesn’t mean that we need to polarize the debate or inject negative emotion, and I applaud Jim for doing neither. It has been a pleasure for me to get to know Jim, and I hope that he will continue his public interest commitments.