The recent shut-down of a concrete and asphalt crushing operation may be offering needed relief to dust-battered residents of a San Francisco emergency COVID-19 homeless shelter next door, but that break is expected to be short-lived.
NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit first reported in May about the health concern for the residents of 120 trailers and RVs at the shelter site in the city’s Bayview. The concern is not due to increased exposure of Covid-19, but the risk from chronic dust generated by nearby concrete handling and batch plants.
The air around the shelter has been earmarked on a city health department modeling map as having elevated levels of PM-2.5. The 2.5 micron particulate matter dust, experts say, has been tied to everything from asthma to lung cancer.
After NBC Bay Area reported about the dust concerns, air quality officials visited the site in June, vowing regulatory action and distributing air purifiers to residents.
But at that time, the air outside had already started to improve for residents, said Gwendolyn Westbrook, whose non-profit United Council for Human Services manages the site.
“They [the residents] say they can breathe better,” Westbrook said in a recent interview. “Whatever was in the air, it has subsided a lot.”
Westbrook told us she was not aware, however, that the asphalt crushing facility right across from the shelter had shut down as the result of what air quality officials call a “legal and jurisdictional wrangle.”
Recology, the city’s garbage hauler, has been running its Sustainable Crushing division at the site on Pier 94 while waiting to get the permit it applied for back in 2016.
Bay Area Air Quality Management District officials say the crushing must obey air quality rules, even without an operations permit. They say they had previously issued a specific permit to Recology to use portable diesel equipment at that site, but that triggered a larger dispute with “the facility, other industries and the California Air Resources Board that has taken time to work out.”
When Recology recently missed a permit application deadline, air regulators issued a notice of violation. That was in May. The company explained that it decided to shut down crushing “in light of the notice and out of deference” to regulators as “we work through the permit process.”
An environmental activist who has sought more stringent dust prevention measures welcomed even a temporary shutdown as progress.
“Good – that is a first step, but there are many more that needs to be taken to protect human health,” said Ray Tompkins, who is on the African American Community Health Equity Council in the Bayview.
Tompkins hopes regulators will make sure concrete operators regularly spray down the giant piles of raw materials and douse dusty access roads to control the problem.
But Tompkins said regulators should not have waited this long to act because the fine dust particles from the concrete plants pose a larger risk as they can travel well beyond their point of origin.
“Personally, it’s because of the media, of your investigation, of the issues being brought up to the public that all of sudden it’s been expedited,” Tompkins said.
Whatever the reason, Westbrook says the air quality is better.
“When you go out there . . . you can really breathe,” she said. With the air district’s newly provided air filters cleaning the air inside the trailers, she said, “our clients are saying, it’s all good out there now.”
Still, Recology’s crushing operation is expected to be up and running again once regulators act on the resubmitted permit application.