East Urbana residents living near the Emulsicoat asphalt plant have complained of headaches, nausea and irritation of the throat, nose and eyes in a series of complaints to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, according to agency records.
The Illinois EPA first received formal complaints about the acrid smell coming from the Emulsicoat asphalt plant in Urbana in 2017.
Six years later, Illinois EPA officials and the city of Urbana are still trying to resolve the complaints about the asphalt-making plant located at 705 E University Avenue in the Historic East Urbana neighborhood.
Altogether, at least 75 complaints have been filed by residents and organizations through an online form since 2017. The Illinois EPA records were obtained by CU-CitizenAccess through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Of those complaints, 54 were filed by Spotlight Air Environmental, an air quality watchdog group based in the Champaign-Urbana area.
“Why do we have to sacrifice our health and lives for these corporations’ money and comfort? Why are we being asked, expected to pay this price?” the group wrote in a complaint from July 12, 2022. “For years we’ve been trying to get something done about the poison we’re being exposed to. And it’s hard to see how one thing has changed.”
Thus far in 2023, 10 individuals — whose names were redacted by Illinois EPA — besides Spotlight have filed complaints to the Illinois EPA about the odor.
Some residents of Urbana voiced their complaints about the odor and pollution from the factory on the Historic East Urbana Neighborhood Association Facebook page. Meetings, news clips and health concerns related to the issue are discussed on the page going back at least to August 2020.
Representatives for Emulsicoat on University Avenue did not respond to multiple requests for an interview about the company’s operations.
Plant under inspection by Illinois EPA
The last time the facility was fully evaluated for compliance under the Clean Air Act was November 2020, according to Emulsicoat’s facility report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Enforcement and Compliance History Database.
Since then, the facility has been partially evaluated four times, three of those occurring in July 2023. No violations or other findings were recorded for these evaluations, according to the Illinois EPA records.
According to the U.S. EPA’s Compliance Monitoring Strategy for the Clean Air Act, full compliance evaluations include a review of all relevant reports and documents and an assessment of “control device and process monitoring conditions” with either data or an in-person visit to the location. The evaluator conducts a stack test, an evaluation of pollution from a sample gas stream, if they believe it’s necessary to ensure emissions are at an appropriate level.
A partial inspection means that “some compliance monitoring was done” but not to the level of a full inspection. Sometimes a partial inspection focuses on one specific part of the facility instead of its entirety.
Kim Biggs, the Illinois EPA public information officer, said Emulsicoat is currently under inspection.
“Illinois EPA investigates all complaints, regardless of the source or source type,” Biggs said in an email. “Illinois EPA currently has an ongoing investigation due to continuing complaints related to Emulsicoat. Due to the ongoing investigation, Illinois EPA is not able to provide additional information at this time.”
In a Sept. 5 post on the neighborhood Facebook page, Urbana Mayor Diane Marlin announced that the Illinois EPA would be meeting Emulsicoat about decreasing the odor.
Marlin said in an email that she does not know whether or not this meeting occurred yet, and that she would like to “know the outcome of this meeting before commenting.”
Marlin did not respond to further questions despite multiple follow-up emails.
“Illinois EPA has met with the company to determine what additional steps can be taken to address odors,” Biggs said in an email. Biggs did not respond to an email asking for more details.
Emulsicoat a long-standing business in Urbana
Emulsicoat has operated facilities in Champaign County since 1975, and today the company has two locations in Urbana: the University Avenue location and a newer location on Saline Court.
The Champaign County Property Tax Inquiry shows Emulsicoat paid $69,880 in property taxes on the University Avenue facility in the 2022 tax year. Two parcels owned by Emulsicoat are listed at 1001 Saline Court, and together they have been taxed $133,141.
According to the website of Emulsicoat’s parent company, Asphalt Materials Inc., the plant specializes in asphalt emulsions, which are combinations of cement, water and an emulsifying ingredient that prevents the cement and water from separating.
While the University Avenue facility is located in an area zoned for industrial buildings, the property is only one block north of Main Street. In some areas, the only separation between Urbana homes and the facility is a fence.
Potential solution moving slowly
A 2021 memo from Urbana’s Department of Public Works said Emulsicoat received a permit to expand its Saline Court facility, which would allow the company to transfer some of its operations away from the University Avenue location.
“We have also been told that they plan to move the remainder of the operation within the next 5 to 10 years,” the memo said.
A 2019 memo from the city’s Community Development Services department determined that all land surrounding Emulsicoat’s Saline Court facility is zoned for either agricultural or heavy industrial use — not residential. The city provides a breakdown in a table on page two of the memo.Ordinance_2019-01-010
Mayor Marlin and Emulsicoat did not respond to requests to comment on the status of the move.