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Residents in North Irvine Prove that Citizen Activism Works!

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Irvine’s asphalt warriors (clockwise from bottom): Lesley Tan, Kim Konte, Dennis Lo and Kevin Lien

Kevin Lien hasn’t started sleeping with his windows open again, and he doubts he ever will. But, the 19 air purifiers that the Orchard Hills resident spent tens of thousands of dollars on now sit largely unused. And, he no longer feels the need to open his front door a crack and sniff the outside air before taking his dogs for their walk.
 
The November closure of the All American Asphalt plant in North Irvine — the result of a remarkable deal among the plant’s owners, the City and the Irvine Company — was literally and figuratively a breath of fresh air for long-suffering residents nearby and a “miracle” for a cadre of citizen activists including Lien who had been fighting the plant for five long and discouraging years.
 
Kim Konte had already gotten her feet wet in environmental activism in 2015 when she lobbied the City to ban the use of the pesticide Roundup in Irvine’s parks and ball fields. Not only did the City ban the pesticide, but in 2016 it adopted a wide-ranging environmental policy to minimize the use of toxic pesticides and herbicides. Konte thought her family was safe in Irvine.
 
However, a couple of years later Konte and her neighbors began noticing “a burnt-rubber smell,” which she attributed to the large amount of construction that was going on in North Irvine at that time. Then a friend photographed a black plume rising above the adjacent nature preserve. “It didn’t make sense,” Konte said.
 
She wasn’t the only one who felt something was amiss. Kevin Lien and Lesley Tan were also investigating. Lien remembers waking up in the middle of the night smelling asphalt. He and Tan began contacting City officials and others. Finally, a City staffer told them there was an asphalt plant in the hills behind their North Irvine neighborhood and suggested they contact the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD).
 
Meanwhile, Konte had taken to social media to see if anyone else was experiencing the odors. “Lesley Tan posted something about an asphalt plant,” Konte recalled. “I was shocked! You couldn’t see the plant, it was down a private road in a nature preserve. It wasn’t on any City map. The City planners we had contacted didn’t know about it.”
 
Konte, Lien, Tan and some other residents began organizing to alert their neighbors and report the matter to government agencies and elected officials. The AQMD had no monitors in the area and its response to complaints was to send an inspector days later, after the odor had dissipated.
 
The California Air Resources Board and the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took no action. The Irvine City Council was completely unresponsive.
 
Dennis Lo moved into his brand new North Irvine home in March 2020. Two months later, he found out about the asphalt plant. He was stunned. “Not at any point in time [during the purchase and construction of the home] was it mentioned to us that there was an asphalt plant nearby,” he says. He began working with the group opposing the plant.
 
By then, the group had begun working with UCI public health and environmental faculty — including Public Health Professor Dean Baker — on air monitoring and documentation of the pollution in their neighborhood. Their data — showing that the plant was emitting huge volumes of benzene, formaldehyde, and other toxic and cancer-causing compounds into the air —were dismissed by the regulators, the City, and the Irvine Company as flawed. Their reports and findings were ignored.
 
Faced with government inaction and the Irvine Company trying to downplay and even discredit their complaints, the group started organizing public protests, first in Eastwood Village, then at City Hall and the Irvine Company headquarters in Newport Center.
 
The citizen activists attended Council meetings to continue to voice their concerns, switching to Zoom participation when the pandemic hit.
 
In the run-up to the 2020 City Council election, the group decided to host a candidate forum. Then-mayoral candidate Farrah Khan and Council candidates Larry Agran and Tammy Kim participated. All three candidates voiced concern and promised action on the asphalt plant, if elected.
 
“We were led to believe that Khan, Kim and Agran all cared very much about this public health crisis,” recalls Dennis Lo. “Many of us voted for them. After they got in office, the only one who stuck with us was Larry Agran.”
 
In fact, Mayor Khan and Councilmember Kim repeatedly blocked Agran from bringing the asphalt plant issue before the City Council. And, Councilmember Kim was quoted in the Voice of OC in 2021, referring to residents’ health concerns as “hysteria.”
 
In addition to Agran, the group received support from State Senator Dave Min, former State Senator Nate Holden who sat on the AQMD board, and former Irvine Councilmember, Mary Ann Gaido, who was then Agran’s appointee to the City’s Planning Commission.
 
Gaido was instrumental in what Lo considers the turning point for the asphalt opposition. In October 2021, the Planning Commission on a 3-2 vote declined to approve the Irvine Company’s plan for the development of Neighborhood 4 in Orchard Hills, citing environmental health concerns with the nearby asphalt plant.
 
“So many of us showed up that we were able to convince a majority of the commissioners to not approve [the plan],” said Lo. Within days, Lo, Konte, Lien and Tan were meeting in Agran’s office with representatives of the Irvine Company, who promised to have a relocation plan for the asphalt plant in place within 15 months if the residents would back off their opposition to the Neighborhood 4 plan. They did, and the development plan was approved by the Planning Commission. (Gaido continued to oppose the Neighborhood 4 plan.) The Irvine Company proved unable to secure a relocation deal, blaming the County of Orange’s refusal to approve a proposed relocation site.
 
The activists didn’t give up. Many of the homebuyers in North Irvine were from Asia so Lesley Tan started posting on Chinese language social media sites about the asphalt plant problem in Irvine. “I think it started affecting Irvine Company sales,” says Lien. “That played a major role.”
 
In 2022, Agran won re-election to the City Council with the most votes of any candidate. That strengthened his hand on the Council. Agran also secured a voting ally in November 2022 when UCI Professor Kathleen Treseder won a seat on the City Council.
 
Agran began working behind the scenes with the Irvine Company and All American Asphalt, appealing to the Irvine Company’s self-interest and threatening the asphalt plant’s owners with eminent domain. What emerged in 2023 was an agreement for the City of Irvine to purchase and then close the asphalt plant, with the Irvine Company donating land to the City to establish a 700-acre open space preserve on and surrounding the plant site. Part of the deal included an 80-acre parcel that would be given to the City by the Irvine Company, which could then be auctioned to developers to pay for the plant acquisition and the open space preserve.
 
Now that the asphalt plant has been shut down and the “Gateway Preserve” is being built, Lo says: “It was a miracle.” And Lo, Konte and Lien all agree that, as Konte has said: “Citizen engagement does work!”

Roger Bloom

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