Site of the Nielson Construction plant. [Photo by Rachel Fixsen / Moab Sun News]

“The toxic cloud from this plant has consumed my home, making both my partner and I sick with headaches and nausea,” Kiley Miller told the Grand County Council.

Miller lives about four miles from the Nielson Construction asphalt and aggregate processing plant in northern San Juan County, which she says has made “the air filled with a metallic-like cloud that makes the sun look strange and the taste in my mouth change.”

Miller described her experience living near the plant at the regular council meeting on Nov. 6 and, along with several other citizens, asked the council to request an extended public comment period before the Utah Division of Air Quality approves a permanent operating permit for the plant.

The Nielson Construction operation is located in Spanish Valley, just south of the border between Grand and San Juan counties. The company is owned by Staker & Parson, a large paving and construction company.

Currently the plant operates under a “Temporary Relocation Permit,” which allows the plant to operate 16 hours a day and produce up to 400 tons of material per hour, with no cap on annual production. The temporary permit limits days of operation to 180 days per calendar year and requires the company to reapply every 365 days.

Mike Dalley, sustainability director for the West Division of CRH Americas Materials, which is the parent company of Staker & Parson, explained that the plant would, in practice, never reach those upper limits of operation. Instead, the plant’s operation ebbs and flows with demand.

“Operation of the hot mix asphalt plant will only be done on an as-needed basis and will not run unless asphalt has been ordered, depending on market demand,” said Dalley.

The plant has now renewed this temporary permit twice and has determined that local need for their material warrants a permanent operation in Spanish Valley, Dalley said. He added that he believes the division also prefers that plants apply for a permanent operational permit rather than repeatedly renewing a temporary relocation permit as the permanent permit involves more rigorous site analysis.

If the request is approved, it will allow for 500,000 tons of aggregate and 200,000 tons of hot mix asphalt to be produced per year at the Spanish Valley site, and will authorize 24-hours-a-day operation, except in the winter months (Nov.-Feb.), when operations will be limited to 20 hours per day.

“Updating the air permit to permanent source status has incorporated all the new State and EPA air quality guidelines required for hot mix asphalt plants,” said Dalley. “The process of obtaining air permits such as these requires months of science-based studies, detailed air quality calculations, and are much more specific and up-to-date than the permit the hot mix asphalt plant previously was operating under.”

Possible health consequences and pollution risks

“Anybody that’s in close proximity to an asphalt batching plant has very legitimate concerns about the health consequences and their exposure to pollution,” said Dr. Brian Moench.

Moench is the board president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, an organization of medical professionals advocating for environmental health in Utah. He explained that there are three main categories of air pollutants considered harmful to human health: ozone, particulate matter and chemicals or tiny fragments of metal that attach themselves to particulate matter.

That third category of air pollutants is of concern to many. PAHs, or polyaromatic hydrocarbons, are a class of these harmful chemicals, which includes benzene and naphthalene.

“Those are very toxic to human health. They’re carcinogens, they’re reproductive toxins, some of them are neurotoxins,” sais Moench.

The Spanish Valley plant’s approval order from the Division of Air Quality lists fifteen substances in its emissions summary table, including benzene, naphthalene, and volatile organic compounds, or VOCs.

If approved for a permanent operational permit, the presence of these pollutants at the Spanish Valley plant would be regularly measured, the Division of Air Quality reported, and compared to models that predict how those pollutants will disperse and at what levels they will be present at a given distance from the source. In their current analysis, the division believes that the plant would comply with air quality standards even when operating at maximum capacity.

“Nielson Construction strives to go beyond what is required in our air quality permits,” Dalley said, citing examples of ways the plant works to optimize fuel efficiency, run plants at lower production temperatures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and give plant personnel regular training on air quality regulations and pollution management.

He also said all emissions are routed through a baghouse, a filtration device, which reduces the amount of dust particulate emitted from the asphalt operations.

“Constant attention is given to dust mitigation by monitoring haul roads, stockpiles, and plant operations,” he added. “Water trucks are used to maintain effective dust control around the plant site.”

Division conducts analysis of pollution potential.

Under a temporary permit, impacts are assumed to be short-term. With ongoing emissions in a fixed location, a more in-depth study is needed. That site analysis was completed as part of the permitting process for the Spanish Valley location.

“The source is required to submit the application, and we do a site-specific analysis of that source,” explained Alan Humpherys, minor source permitting manager at the Division of Air Quality.

According to the division’s analysis, the maximum emissions that the plant could produce under the permanent permit would still fall short of the threshold that would classify it as a “major source” of pollutants.

Under Division of Air Quality standards, a “major” source emits 100 tons or more of any one of several measured pollutants into the air. Under the permanent operational permit, the highest emissions that the Spanish Valley plant could hypothetically produce at maximum operating capacity would fall just under that amount, qualifying it as a “minor source.”

For comparison, Humpherys said that the Division of Air Quality requires any pollutant source to obtain a permit if they are emitting 5 tons or more per year, which a source will usually reach if it is producing around 100,000 tons of material.

Even the largest aggregate producer in the state, located at Point of the Mountain near Bluffdale, Utah, is considered by the Division of Air Quality to be a “minor source.” The plant produces 14 million tons of material per year, according to Humpherys. Though its emissions are slightly over the 100 ton threshold, due to some nuanced exemptions in regulations, it falls in the Division of Air Quality’s “minor source” category.

Asphalt needed for local projects

Though it creates toxic emissions, asphalt is still the dominant material for essential road-building projects. Kevin Kitchen, regional communications manager for the Utah Department of Transportation, noted that sources for road-building material are scarce in southeast Utah and transporting materials from a distant source could result in higher project costs. UDOT has some of its own materials sources, but more often contracts with private companies like Nielson Construction.

Nielson Construction has contributed to large local projects in the past. In 2017, Nielson Construction undertook repaving part of the La Sal Loop Road, using 60,000 tons of aggregate road base and 25,000 tons of hot mix asphalt, according to the company’s website. Thirteen miles of road grade was covered, reducing potholes in the road.

“The asphalt produced from the Nielson Materials asphalt plant will be used to improve highway travel and safety, and help build and improve roads in the community,” Dalley said in an email to the Moab Sun News. “Nielson Materials is proud to partner with the Utah Department of Transportation, Juab County, Moab City, and residents to provide a high-quality product and be a partner in community improvements.”

Concerns about pollution, public comment

Over the last months, citizens in both Grand and San Juan counties attended local public meetings to discuss the new permit. San Juan County citizens at a Nov. 5 commission meeting expressed support for businesses that would be a source of tax revenues for the county, and worried that without access to local materials, road construction costs would rise.

The San Juan County Commission considered, and ultimately did not pass, a resolution opposing the approval of the permit.

Some Grand County residents felt blindsided by the proposal, as public notices were published in San Juan County newspapers but not in Moab papers. The Division of Air Quality held a public hearing at the Moab City Council Chambers on Oct. 29.

Citizens attending a Nov. 6 Grand County Council meeting said they learned at that public hearing that there were further measures which the plant could employ to mitigate air pollution, but would not be required to institute for the Division of Air Quality permit.

“I’m not an expert on all the technicalities,” said Kevin Walker, Moab resident and Grand County Democratic Party Chairman, “but it seems like it could have fewer emissions but they don’t want to because it’s expensive.”

At the following meeting on Nov. 19, the Grand County Council approved a letter to the Division of Air Quality requesting an extension of the public comment period, or, in lieu of an extension, that the permit require the strictest possible pollution controls. As of this writing, Grand County has not received a response from the agency.

Donna Spangler, communications director for the Division of Air Quality, said in an email that they have not extended the public comment period. Citizens at the Nov. 6 council meeting worried that residents and local leaders didn’t have time, or enough information, to provide meaningful input.

The comments that were received from Oct. 10 to Nov. 8, including the public hearing in Moab, are under review.

Spanish Valley facility seeks permanent operating permit

“Anybody that’s in close proximity to an asphalt batching plant, they have very legitimate concerns about the health consequences and their exposure to that pollution.”

– Dr. Brian Moench