EnvironmentNeighborhoods

East Urbana residents worried about emissions from local asphalt plant

Maggie Burnetti / For CU-CitizenAccess

Urbana residents are concerned with pollution from the Emulsicoat asphalt plant, leaving them to experience foul odors and other possible environmental health concerns.

Despite Illinois Environmental Protection Agency action and investigations, they’re also frustrated from withstanding these emissions over time. Residents said they are worried about recurring odors and possible other pollutants from Emulsicoat, the local asphalt company, which is located at 705 E. University Ave. near the Historic East Urbana neighborhood.

Special use permits from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) allows the continual use of its two locations in the Urbana community. 

The most recent complaint, filed to the IEPA in early May 2021, stated “the stench in the East Urbana neighborhood was overwhelming” and that people noted physical problems tied to it.

The investigation by Michael Haggitt and Mark Schleuter, investigators at the IEPA, from that same month had limitations from the lack of hard evidence linking the odor to the suspected Emulsicoat source and recommended no further action beyond the community meeting they held a month prior to that in April. 

Complaints filed against Emulsicoat to either the city or the IEPA date back to 30 years ago. One complaint, from November 4, 1991 stated that the pollution had been occurring for over a year at this point, since August 1990. 

“The fumes are noticeable for hours and/or days at a time. They permeate the homes and vehicles, and stay long after Emulsicoat’s daily production, (i.e. during evening hours),” the complainant, whose info was redacted, stated.   

While the over 35 documented complainants have changed over time, the issue remains. All complaints were followed up on, but followed the same routine: an investigation was initiated from the IEPA with a representative, such as Assistant Engineer Darwin Fields. In response to a complaint, Fields conducted such an investigation on September 19, 2001 where he found no violations and mild odors.

“Odors were barely noticeable on this date,” he wrote in the findings. “A rail car was unloading oil during the time of the inspection but no trucks were being loaded. In the past, loading trucks has been one of the main causes of odors but the three new odor neutralizers installed in March, 2001 appeared to be doing a good job of controlling odors.”

The duration of his investigation was not noted. Complaints have continued on an almost annual basis and increased in recent years. 

The first violation leveled by the state environment agency was in 2017. The agency cited the plant for emissions exceeded the 5 ton limit. The IEPA inspector detected a level of odor and after inspection found the plant to be operating at seasonal high output. 

“Basic problem is that they are running within their permit, which actually involved a lot of state-mandated self reporting and not much ambient air quality monitoring,” Scott Dossett said over email, the Historic East Urbana Neighborhood Association main point of contact. He is an administrator of their Facebook group, and often serves as a leader to voice neighborhood concerns. 

In November 2020 – over three years later – an IEPA inspector found the emissions to exceed the Registration of Smaller Sources (ROSS) program under the Clean Air Act Permit Program. 

Emulsicoat, Inc exterior (705 E University Ave, Urbana, IL 61802) on Sunday, December 19, 2021. Photo by Darrell Hoemann/CU-CitizenAccess
Darrell Hoemann

The ROSS program applies to facilities with less than 5 tons per year of air pollutants combined. The exact limits are:

  • 5.0 Tons/year of combined pollutants (particulate matter, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfure dioxide, and volatile organic material)
  • 0.50 Tons/year of combined hazardous air pollutants
  • 0.05 Tons/year of mercury air emissions
  • 0.05Tons/year of lead air emissions

Since surpassing this amount, the plant needed to get a different type of permit under the same program: a Lifetime Operating Permit. In December of that same year, the IEPA gave notice of the ROSS violations and the required upgrades. 

The violation notice from the IEPA included a compulsory need to apply and upgrade from ROSS to a Lifetime Operating Permit that was actually incorrectly stated. Once corrected, this error was tied to what City of Urbana Sustainability and Resilience Officer, Scott Tess, described as a miscalculation in documentation. The agency was going off of an incorrect measure of output which stated figures as monthly instead of annually. Annually, they were under the capacity limits.    

Despite environmental standards not being the main reason for concern, complaints still remain from the incorrectly-noted violation. The people of the neighborhood experience issues because of their close proximity. The plant has repercussions which “occasionally emits such a stink that folks via FB talk about selling out and lowered property values,” Dossett said. 

Residents remain unsatisfied with responses so far. Judi Kutzko, a resident of the neighborhood, has well-experienced the described odor. 

“It is just almost unbearable. It’s kind of a cross between burning rubber and rotten eggs, and several people in the neighborhood, including me, have asthma, or COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease), or small children, or whatever.”

On July 26, resident Judi Kutzko relayed an email between her and a government representative.

“The Illinois EPA has not heard anything from Emulsicoat regarding moving to their other location. You may wish to contact the company directly for an update,” Cassandra Metz, Illinois environmental protection specialist at the IEPA, said. Commentary on that post confirmed the still-present odor, specifically at Fairlawn and Eastern Dr. areas of the neighborhood.  

Dossett said the emissions testing systems have shortcomings because the City of Urbana doesn’t have the resources for a comprehensive emissions monitoring system, something it has in common with the IEPA. 

On March 29, 2021, Urbana Sustainability Officer Scott Tess wrote a memorandum to the City’s Sustainability Advisory Commission. The letter outlined a general summary of the Emulsicoat interactions with the IEPA.

While a member of the Urbana community, Tess said he has never personally detected the described smell. He is aware of their multi-year plan to shift production to another facility to adjust the impact of emissions to the community. 

Despite the ongoing pandemic bringing a slow to neighborhood activism, one constant remains in The Historic East Urbana Neighborhood Association. The Facebook group for the association, with over 1,200 members, is active with individual reports on topics such as emissions from the Emulsicoat asphalt manufacturing plant, community sidewalk issues and emissions from an asphalt company are a few discussed lately. 

Moving forward, Kutzko has specific ideas of what she would like to see in action regarding the Emulsicoat plant.

“From my point of view, but what I would like to see happen is, first of all, another inspection by a follow-up by Ameren and possibly another meeting with the city council after an inspection has taken place with another representative,” she said. 

Maggie Burnetti / For CU-CitizenAccess

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