Some residents of the Lehi Crossing community in Mesa say they have been experiencing chronic headaches, coughing, and burning of the eyes, nose and throat allegedly due to the fumes coming from the asphalt plant, Vulcan Materials, located less than a mile away from their community.
Before Lehi Crossings was developed, planning and zoning meetings took place when the facility was owned by another operator, New West. In a Mesa City Council meeting on November 15, 2004, a public hearing was conducted. Paul Gilbert, a representative of the site developer, William Lyon, gave a presentation to council members. In his presentation, he alleged that the majority of the neighbors most affected by the development were in support of his proposal. Gilbert predicted that the neighborhoods, developers and mines could all cooperate with one another.
One CEMEX and three Vulcan plant representatives present at the meeting stated their opposition to the project, citing that a housing development would not be compatible with the current land use at the time. 11 citizens were opposed to the project, nine of which spoke about their concerns to the council.
One concern was that the homes that were built at Lehi Crossing in 2012 were already complaining about fumes in their neighborhood.
Conversely, 30 citizens showed their support for the project, 14 of which voiced their support. Many of those in support were afraid that if the development wasn’t used for housing, it would be used to develop more mining companies.
Planning Director, John Wesley, and his staff reviewed the request and concluded, among other things, that there was a concern that the proposed new residential area would experience “an adverse environmental impact resulting from proximity to the mines.” Based on their findings, Wesley recommended that the Planning and Zoning Board deny the proposal, according to minutes from the November 15, 2004 city council meeting. When questioned, Wesley remembers the day differently, saying, “I was part of those meetings. I remember discussions about noise and dust, but not about fumes.” Wesley also remembered hearing information from the staff, the surrounding neighborhoods, the property owner and the mine owners, and said, “ Based on all of that information, the Council determined at the time, with the information available to them at the time, that a residential neighborhood could be built without serious concerns.” His comments today conflict with the minutes from the November 2004 meeting.
The Planning and Zoning Board was at a standstill with a 3-3 vote, 1 absent. Despite the health warnings from plant officials, Developer William Lyon took the proposal to iPlan Consulting, who hired a land use attorney to successfully push the proposal through the city on November 23, 2014.
A 2005 settlement agreement between former facility owner New West and William Lyon Homes, the developer of Lehi Crossing, requires all home buyers to acknowledge that the property being purchased is in the vicinity of an active sand and gravel facility, including a hot mix asphalt plant.
Still, Vulcan has committed to working with neighbors to improve operations while continuing to supply the growing local demand for building materials.
“Unfortunately, some neighbor experiences haven’t been representative of how we strive to do business,” said Jeff May, Vulcan’s Vice President and General Manager. “Although Val Vista is in compliance with all laws and regulations, we are committed to doing more.”
There is no direct evidence that links residents’ health complaints and the Vulcan Materials asphalt plant. A 2007 study by APAC Carolina Inc. for Associated Asphalt found that while the odor from an asphalt plant can cause negative reactions in sensitive individuals, it determined that typical levels do not cause long-term health or toxicity concerns. Some highlights of the study:
• Concentrations of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and volatile organic carbons (VOCs) pose no acute (i.e., short-term) or chronic (i.e., long-term) public health hazard.
• Although measured H2S in the residential areas surrounding the asphalt operations occasionally exceeded odor threshold levels and very likely reached or exceeded odor nuisance levels on a periodic basis, H2S did not likely reach levels known to pose a long-term health hazard.
Vulcan team members have been communicating with neighbors to better understand their experiences and concerns and has established a community hotline and email to receive input.
In addition, Vulcan has hired an outside technical team of engineers and experts to help evaluate the operation and to identify potential odor sources and factors within the plant and in the production process. Vulcan has announced that is equipping the hot mix asphalt facility with new air filtration and caption systems by the end of the year to reduce the odor that residents occasionally smell.
Vulcan also took several actions in early May aimed at minimizing potential odor impacts during its study and development period, including voluntarily reduced hot mix asphalt production and suspended producing mixes with recycled rubber blends, which is an Arizona Department of Transportation requirement for certain jobs. Although the facility is permitted to operate 24/7, Vulcan has implemented a Nighttime Work Policy, which limits aggregate crushing and screening during night hours, and shifts activities to reduce traffic and noise.
“We will continue to listen and keep our neighbors informed,” added May. “This area has changed dramatically since 2001, and we are committed to working with the community and implementing solutions.”
Despite the legally required disclosure requirement, upon completion of the homes in 2016, Lyon purportedly neglected to alert home buyers about the asphalt being produced 200 feet below the surface of the mine or the odors being emitted from it. Numerous residents began to smell the fumes shortly after moving into the neighborhood. “I had been smelling the fumes since we bought our house in August 2016, I just didn’t know what they were. Sometimes I smell strange oils, which I now know is the waste oil (hazardous waste) used to heat up the asphalt. Sometimes it smells like sulfur, sometimes asphalt. There are times when it is any combination of those odors,” said Hartman.
Vulcan notes that it maintains has an industry-leading safety, health and environment record, and its Val Vista is considered by local, state and federal regulatory officials to be protective of public health and safety. In fact, its compliance record with the county shows that its emissions limits are between 30 to 70 percent below what is allowed.
Vulcan Materials provides their employees with a safety data sheet that outlines the hazards of repeated close proximity and physical exposure to asphalt and aggregate, with the primary routes of exposure being inhalation and contact with the eyes or skin. According to the data sheet, asthma is an existing condition that may be aggravated by exposure.
Another hazard stated in the data sheet is lung damage, lung cancer and a lung disease called silicosis. Lung damage can happen if crystalline silica, which is found in the aggregate mixture element quartz, is inhaled for prolonged periods of time.
Autoimmune disorders and other adverse health effects involving the kidney were also stated on Vulcan’s Hot-Mix Cold Lay Asphalt Safety Data Sheet. Several government entities, including the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the National Toxicology Program and the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists, have listed respirable crystalline silica as a “known human carcinogen.”
The data sheet also urges workers to station themselves on the upwind side of asphalt emissions when possible, stating, “Emissions from the heated material may have an unpleasant odor and may cause moderate to severe irritation of the mucous membranes and upper respiratory tract, headaches, nausea and dizziness. Toxic hydrogen sulfide gas may be released.”
Adults in the community aren’t the only ones being affected by the fumes of Vulcan Materials. Numerous children at Lehi Crossing have been affected by the fumes, as well. “I now have chronic headaches every time I smell asphalt, and my baby, who is nine months old, has developed a chronic mystery cough. He is not sick, but he makes that barking sound,” said Hartman, “I am gravely concerned for my children’s safety.”
Collene Anderson, Lehi resident, said that her eight-year-old daughter has been experiencing high fevers, fatigue, joint and muscle pain, skin rash and nausea for over a month. The child has been taken to multiple doctors, including an infectious disease doctor, and has spent several days at Phoenix Children’s Hospital. After being tested for viruses and infections, the medical professionals at Phoenix Children’s Hospital are asking for blood work, thinking that she is possibly being exposed to toxins in her environment. Anderson said her daughter hasn’t been able to enjoy her usual summer activities, including dancing or swimming due to her health. “We also can’t enjoy our backyard most mornings, as the smell is so bad,” said Anderson, “I had to give up long distance running about two months ago because I suddenly started getting sick during runs.”
On June 24, Maricopa County placed a machine to monitor the air in the neighborhood. For the week that the machine was there, Vulcan produced hot mix asphalt on four of the days. Members of the community have been proactive in protecting the health of their community. Even resident Angie Stanfield, who claims that she doesn’t smell the fumes is a member of the group that has been battling Vulcan and William Lyon. “I’m certainly not saying that some people aren’t experiencing this, but if it weren’t for this group and comments I’ve heard from neighbors I really wouldn’t know that this was an issue at all,” said Stanfield, adding, “It definitely needs to keep being investigated and addressed.”
Hartman has partnered with Thomas Cahill, Associate Professor in the Division of Mathematical and Natural Science at Arizona State University, by taking samples of dust in the area and sending them to Cahill for testing. “The dust sample had elevated concentrations of arsenic relative to clean desert areas. I don’t have the numbers with me, but I think they were about 50 ppm. Most of the soil samples I have seen are less than 10 ppm,” said Cahill in regards to the results of the tests. However, due to arsenic-based pesticides being used on cotton crops in Mesa until around the 1960s, Cahill said he would need dust samples from areas in Mesa that are not located near the asphalt plant to truly make a decision on whether or not it was Vulcan that contributed to the high amount of arsenic found in the sample.
“Arsenic is a confirmed human carcinogen, so long-term exposure to elevated arsenic concentrations can cause cancer,” said Cahill. He is looking into getting a student to sample more soil throughout Mesa.
Residents met with the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] in February, who advised them that unless Vulcan violates their permit, the EPA has no jurisdiction over Vulcan because it is located and regulated by the county, making them immune to noise and odor ordinances.
As well as attending city council meetings, residents have arranged meetings with Mayor John Giles, Councilman Mark Freeman and County Supervisor Steve Chucri, where they continued to ask questions that were never answered, according to Hartman. “The Lehi Crossing / Vulcan situation is complicated for several reasons. First, Vulcan is not located in the City and the City has no regulatory authority over air quality. So, our ability to directly impact the situation is limited,” said Mayor John Giles on Monday, adding, “Vulcan has voluntarily changed the hours of its asphalt operations and eliminated the production of rubberized asphalt. They have committed to making additional modifications to address the remaining asphalt odor issues that will be announced the end of this month. I am actively encouraging the departments of state and county governments that regulate air quality to do their jobs. Conversations and decisions about the future of Lehi Crossing need to be based on data and science. I am aware that passions run high on this issue and I will continue to advocate for the residents of Lehi Crossing to ensure that their neighborhood is a safe place to raise a family.”
Residents have also met with Vulcan on April 26, who asked them to report odors to them so that they could go to their homes and “smell it for themselves.” Hartman spoke with attorneys who advised against this. “The meeting was ridiculous,” said Hartman, “Vulcan tried to run the meeting and actually had their hired public relations guy, not even a Vulcan employee, trying to take charge of how the meeting would be run.”
Feedback from that meeting and the follow-up conversations and visits with numerous residents helped Vulcan develop an action plan that was communicated in a mailing to 1,000 neighbors.
On June 26, Lehi residents arranged a meeting with Lyon, who ended up canceling at the last minute, leaving the residents to again question their city officials and get no answers. Since that meeting, Hartman said that she has stopped receiving responses from the developer. “We’re basically at a stand-still. Nobody is doing anything,” she said, “Everyone – including Senator Flake, Representative Bowers, the state and the city all send us back to the county, who will do nothing.”
Lehi Crossing residents who have been inhaling the fumes from the plant have considered moving out of Lehi Crossing, but they contend that they are stuck. “The problem is that we can’t just move. We would have to disclose the asphalt plant and the odors, or our buyers could sue us,” said Hartman. She said that a home sale in her neighborhood fell through last week after her neighbor disclosed the truth to the buyer. William Lyon did not return contact on the issue.
Vulcan also hosted a three-day open house at the end of June and is expected to provide an update to the community shortly.
Vulcan Materials is located West of Val Vista Drive, between McDowell and Thomas Roads, less than a mile from the entrances of the Lehi Crossing communities, Passage Collection, Wagon Trail and Settler’s Landing.