Proposed Vallejo Waterfront Cement Factory Sleeps With the Fishes

The City of Vallejo announced in late May that Vallejo Marine Terminal (VMT) has elected to withdraw its appeal of the planning commission's 2017 denial of the VMT-Orcem cement plant, effectively killing the project.

The proposed location of the Orcem cement plant in Vallejo was on the site of the old Sperry Mill at the entrance to the Mare Island Strait. Residential homes are located blocks from the location and an elementary school is only a quarter-mile away. Citizens opposed to the project cited concerns over pollution and heavy diesel truck traffic in a residential neighborhood. Photo by Joel Williams

BY JOEL WILLIAMS

 

The City of Vallejo announced in late May that Vallejo Marine Terminal (VMT) has elected to withdraw its appeal of the planning commission’s 2017 denial of the VMT-Orcem cement plant, effectively killing the project.

  

This announcement marked the end of a lengthy battle over the proposed facility, which would have been located at the entrance to the Mare Island Strait in Vallejo. VMT had applied on September 5, 2013 for a cement processing plant project on approximately 30 acres at the former General Mills factory. The original project was denied a major use permit by the Vallejo Planning Commission on February 27, 2017 due to concerns over environmental and quality of life impacts.

  

Local opponents to the development consisted of citizens concerned about pollution and heavy diesel truck traffic in a residential area, which includes an elementary school located just a quarter-mile away. Regional and statewide organizations joined in the fight against the cement plant as more details were revealed, in many cases due to the tireless efforts of individuals and grassroots organizations like Fresh Air Vallejo, headed by Vallejo resident Peter Brooks.

  

Bay Crossings first became aware of this project over three years ago, when Baykeeper submitted an article to us in early 2016 that warned the deep-water terminal being proposed in Vallejo could be used to ship coal to China. The article also described the cement plant being planned for the location by an Irish company called Orcem that used granular blast furnace slag (a waste product from the metal recycling process) as the main ingredient for their product. Overexposure to slag can cause chemical burns, irreversible skin and eye damage, lung failure and cancer.

  

Because the process used by Orcem required less energy than the process used to produce the more common Portland cement, Orcem advertised their product as “green” cement. This ignored the potentially toxic elements found in the blast furnace slag that would be shipped in from Japan and stored on the Vallejo waterfront, as well as the environmental cost of the shipping.

  

It didn’t take long for other groups (including the Sierra Club) to join the opposition as additional information regarding the project was exposed, which included clandestine meetings with several councilmembers before the project was announced to the public. It was those same councilmembers, who became labeled the “Orcem Four,” that upheld the VMT/Orcem 2017 appeal of the planning commission’s six-to-one vote to deny permits for the project and the fight continued for almost two more years.

  

In December 2017, Jay Gunkelman, who was on the Community Air Quality Monitoring Technology Advisory Panel for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, called a news conference to present his findings. He stated, “Our scientific analysis of the Orcem cement factory shows that air pollution levels will be too high. The homes and school in this neighborhood would suffer from an illegal and immoral amount of diesel exhaust and cement dust.”

  

Gunkelman added, “Nowhere else has Orcem built a cement factory so close to a residential neighborhood. If there was ever a plant that shouldn’t be built, this is it. The City of Vallejo must stop this project now.”

  

In July of last year, Solano County Sierra Club Chairperson Joseph Feller warned, “After examining the current environmental impact report for the proposed factor, our attorneys have found major holes that would allow the applicant to ship coal through Vallejo if the city were to approve the project. Our children and citizens are at great risk from the potential of coal shipments through Vallejo.”

  

The 2018 elections changed the dynamics of the City Council when Jess Malgapo, de facto head of the “Orcem Four,” failed to retain his seat and there was no longer a majority of the council to support the project.

  

Shortly after that, the California Department of Justice sent Vallejo city officials a letter arguing environmental documents prepared for the project were misleading and violated state law, stating, “The environmental documents for the project fail to provide adequate legal support for the City of Vallejo to approve the project.”

  

In the end, it was the efforts of the concerned citizens of Vallejo with a strong desire to preserve their precious waterfront and protect the health of their neighbors that finally brought an end to this project. It was a long and hard battle, but they never backed down. This time it was the underdog that defeated the well-funded and politically powerful opponent.

  

“It’s amazing how people from all across Vallejo—and all around the Bay—came together to keep a cement factory off our waterfront,” said Brooks. “It took nearly four years of struggle but we never gave up and we’ve set the stage for a better future.”

        

Bay Crossings congratulates the people of Vallejo on their victory.

A group of concerned citizens gathered on the steps of Vallejo’s City Hall in September 2016 to protest the construction of a cement plant on the waterfront. It would take over 2 1/2 years before the project was ultimately defeated. Photo by Joel Williams