Steve Finch was riding his bike to work last winter. Wafts of an all-too-familiar smell engulfed him about a block from his office. He felt like he might have to pull over from fear of losing his breakfast.
In a city that's constantly being rebuilt, reorganized and added on to, most Burqueños know the unmistakable, noxious smell of fresh asphalt. Being subjected to the odor of plants pumping out large orders of the stuff is less common. "What they'll do is make a bunch of asphalt and fill those big silos you see," Finch says.
Still fewer have sent their employees home sick with headaches or experienced waves of nausea while riding to work. Yet businesses in the Broadbent Business Park off Menaul and I-25 are intimately acquainted with that smell, which drifts from an asphalt-batching plant about 1,000 feet away.
Finch, who owns a business in the area, says on asphalt production days his workers leave early with headaches and his clients complain when they walk through the door. Finch doesn't want his company named in this story.
Twin Mountain, the construction company that built the Big-I and the I-40-Coors interchange, owns the asphalt plant in the northwest quadrant of the Big I area. Finch put up with the stink for years, he says, because he thought Twin Mountain would only be using the property temporarily while the company worked on the freeways.
"As this was going on, there were times when I was just hanging out inside or outside my office, and I got overcome by some serious fumes," Finch says. "One day, it can be just horrible depending on which way the wind is blowing. And the next day, it'll be perfectly fine, like there's nothing there. It's hard to catch something like that."
Finch says the plant doesn't operate daily but goes into production as asphalt's needed for construction projects around the city. "It's obvious when they're making asphalt," he says. Depending on the size of the batch, the stink can hang around his office all day.
He filed his first formal complaint with the city's Air Quality Division on Dec. 29, 2005. "If he were to have filed a complaint, our policy is to follow up within 24 hours, says Chris Albrecht, environmental health manager with the Air Quality Division. "Whether or not it was to his satisfaction is a different story."
"I never heard anything back," says Finch, who has also called Twin Mountain and sent e-mails to Mayor Martin Chavez about the asphalt plant. He's received no response from either so far. Albrecht says the complaint with Air Quality was closed on Feb. 27, 2006, and that's all the information he has about it.
Finch filed a second complaint with the Air Quality Division last month. He's still waiting to hear back, although his hopes are high this time. Finch went down to the division's offices and explained the years-long problem in person. "It seems like they're taking it very seriously," though, again, he's heard nothing back yet. The next step, says Finch, will be to contact other businesses in the area--like the ClubHouse Inn and the T-Mobile building--to see if they, too, take issue with the plant's smell. "It just baffles me why there is such a facility still there, in the middle of town around a high-density population, emitting that kind of stuff," Finch says.
Albrecht points out that any business receives its approval from the city's Planning and Zoning Department based on its activity. Sectors of the city are zoned for commercial, industrial or residential use. "Regulations and code in zoning don't rely on pollution and smell," he says. "As far as I'm concerned, it's fine to be there."
Albrecht adds that a lot of people mistake odor for an air-quality issue. "People automatically assume that if it smells bad, then it's bad for you." Everyone's olfactory system works differently, he says. "I'm very sensitive to smell. Something you might not be sensitive to, it might make me sick. But does that mean it's bad for you? Not necessarily." Hot-mix asphalt does not have a "favorable smell," he says.
The two chemicals Finch is particularly concerned about are sulfur dioxide and volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. Finch, who believes these are the main culprits affecting his business, works in the environmental industry, and he's familiar with sulfur smells. Sulfur dioxide is known for its odor, as well as for being colorless and toxic at high concentrations.
Though it's unclear from Air Quality's file on the plant how much sulfur dioxide and VOCs the asphalt plant gives off, on a chart of its equipment, Twin Mountain lists "fuel oil" and "#2 fuel oil." According to an EPA report issued on hot-mix asphalt plants in December 2000, plants producing about 100,000 tons of hot-mix asphalt that use natural gas emit only about 480 pounds of sulfur dioxide per year. However, plants like Twin Mountain that use fuel oils emit 8,800 pounds.
Since the Twin Mountain plant reported 329,599 tons of total asphalt production in 2006, the the amount of sulfur dioxide could be about three times higher.
Albrecht says the permit issued for the asphalt plant has pound-per-hour limitations that regulate the amount of pollutants emitted by the plant. Annually, the plant is required to hire someone to do stack testing based on the permitted capacity.