The asphalt plant next door
Virginia officials to weigh new air permit for asphalt plant that neighbors Louisa residence
Theresa and Alberta Coffey outside their home in Louisa County, where the Boxley asphalt plant has been operating next door. (Sarah Vogelsong / Virginia Mercury)
LOUISA — Alberta and Theresa Coffey are the last people living on a swath of land in Louisa County between Interstate 64 and the newest addition to the neighborhood: the Boxley asphalt plant.
When Alberta Coffey, now 83, and her husband Harold first bought the roughly one-acre property just east of Zion Crossroads in 1962, the largely agricultural area was home to a few other residents and full of trees. “It was nice out here,” she said; it was “peaceful.”
But in spring 2021, the Boxley Materials Company began producing asphalt on several nearby parcels of land, including one that backed directly up to the Coffey property’s southern border. Ever since then, Alberta and her daughter Theresa said they have been plagued by air pollution, truck and plant noise and chemical odors that are causing health problems ranging from persistent headaches to burning in the nose and throat. Theresa Coffey’s nurse advised her to double-mask when outside on the property and to limit the amount of time she spent outdoors.
“It’s just complete chaos,” Theresa Coffey said. “It’s like night and day.”
Today, Boxley is operating its Louisa plant under a “portable” air permit from the state that allows it to move its operations from its current home base in Campbell County to other sites for as much as 18 months.
In June 2021, two months after its relocation, however, the company notified the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality that it wants to make the Louisa site its permanent home base.
Now state environmental officials are faced with a decision about whether to grant Boxley an air permit to operate at the new site just a stone’s throw from the Coffey’s side door.
“I’ve been at DEQ 30 years, in permitting basically, and this is the first time I’ve seen this type of situation where there’s a house right next to something this close,” said DEQ Air Permit Manager Tamera Thompson.
Mike Dowd, director of DEQ’s Air and Renewable Energy Division, said when it comes to air quality approvals, the agency’s authority is limited.
Local governments like Louisa’s “are the ones who are responsible for the siting of projects,” he said. “We look at the health impacts and the best available control technologies. But it’s hard for us to control a situation other than directly looking at the environmental air impacts of a situation where a locality has come and rezoned an area and allowed such a facility, you know, 50 feet from someone’s door.”
The portable air permit Boxley is operating under in Louisa is primarily used in Virginia for concrete and asphalt production facilities.
“It allows the company to take the asphalt or concrete or whatever and go from site to site, but they have a home base, which is where the permit is issued,” said Thompson.
Thompson and Dowd said that because portable permits only allow their holder to operate for up to 18 months at different sites, the agency doesn’t typically conduct air quality monitoring at the secondary locations. Nor do environmental officials visit new locations every time an operator with a portable permit decides to move.
“We don’t have the staff, and usually it’s not an issue,” said Thompson. “Locality approval’s always key for us. We depend a lot on the localities, the work that the localities have done on the zoning process.”
In the case of Louisa, county officials rezoned the Boxley site from agricultural to industrial use to allow the company to relocate there in 2019. (They also granted Boxley a conditional-use permit allowing the plant silo, which is readily visible from the Coffey house, to exceed the county’s 60-foot height limit by five feet.) While the Coffey property is marked on county maps used in the rezoning, minutes from the Board of Supervisors meeting when the rezoning was approved include no mention of the residence. Neither the district supervisor nor a Louisa planning official responded to questions from the Mercury about the rezoning.
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“I don’t know if they realize how close they are to us,” said Coffey. “This shouldn’t be zoned for industrial because it’s still residential.”
Thompson said that when Boxley notified DEQ that it intended to move its operations to Louisa, state agency staff were not aware that an inhabited house was directly adjacent to the site.
“They had rezoned it,” she said. “So it was zoned appropriately.”
Boxley, in a statement provided by spokesperson Sarah Huddle, said the company is “in compliance with a DEQ air permit for a portable hot mix asphalt facility.”
Dowd confirmed that was true: “They’re in full compliance with our permit regulation.”
However, the clock is ticking. Because Boxley can only operate 18 months at the Louisa site under its portable permit, the company must obtain a new minor source review air permit to continue running there permanently by Oct. 19 or cease operations.
Dowd said that was a hard deadline.
“I don’t think we have the authority to extend even, even if we were so inclined,” he said. “Why would we extend it? They have a home down in Campbell County.”
For the Coffeys, the idea of having an asphalt plant permanently next door is unbearable.
Theresa Coffey said that when the plant is running, she and her mother experience “an overwhelming odor” of tar and chemicals and have suffered breathing problems, headaches and dizziness. They’ve bought air purifiers and keep windows closed, but “it comes all through the house,” she said.
Noise, from both the plant and the truck traffic that enters and exits the site at the base of the Coffeys’ driveway, is also a major aggravation. The sound of the trucks’ air brakes “jars everything. It even jars the house,” said Theresa Coffey.
Since March 2021, she has filed numerous complaints with DEQ about the facility.
“The smell is overwhelming. When you smell it will cause the inside of your nostrils and the back of your throat to burn,” she wrote in a pollution incident summary report dated June 17, 2021. “It will also cause headache. When the machines start up there is smoke and what other chemicals are being released in the environment. This cannot be safe for people, animals, water, air or land.”
Boxley, through the statement sent by Huddle, says it has “been in communication with the neighboring property owner to better understand their concerns and how those may be addressed. We will continue to work with both DEQ and the neighboring property owner as this process moves forward.” In February and March, prior to the start of plant production, the company erected a wooden fence between the two properties to provide the family more privacy.
Nevertheless, both Boxley and Theresa and Alberta Coffey have retained lawyers, with Cale Jaffe of the University of Virginia’s Environmental Law and Community Engagement Clinic representing the Coffeys pro bono.
“I’ve expressed my opinion to both attorneys that it would be great if the parties could come to an agreement and work this situation out among themselves,” Dowd told Virginia’s State Air Pollution Control Board at a meeting this April.
In the meantime, given the Coffeys’ complaints and the proximity of their residence to the asphalt plant, DEQ is asking Boxley to conduct air monitoring as part of the agency’s permit review process.
Once that modeling is done, DEQ “will review it to see if the emissions from the plant would be expected to violate any health-based standard,” said Dowd. But he cautioned that “if the modeling comes in at ambient concentrations below where the health-based standards are, then under our regulations they would get a permit.”
Any draft permit put out by the agency will go out for public comment and a public hearing, he said.
Theresa Coffey said Boxley hasn’t been operating its facility “since all this started up” but that she remained concerned about her mother in particular.
“She should be able to enjoy her home and peace of mind,” she said.
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