Asphalt plans draw fire

The rusting light-blue plant here has not cranked out asphalt in about 20 years, but a boom in commercial development south of Boston, along with a spate of highway projects, has stirred Norfolk Asphalt Co.''s interest in making the gooey black material again.

And many nearby residents are not happy.

Calling themselves Stop Norwood Asphalt Plant, 60 opponents turned out for a recent Zoning Board of Appeals meeting. On one recent Saturday, they donned white surgical masks while picketing in front of the Pleasant Street plant, and they plan a rally in the town center in coming weeks.

The threat of renewed asphalt production at the plant is an unfair consequence of development, say opponents in this leafy, well-groomed neighborhood.

"We will fight them all the way," said resident Lou Santoro. "Who wants to live next to an asphalt plant? It''s a nuisance. We will have trucks lined up on the streets. The plant will blow smoke into our neighborhoods. There will be large odors."

Company representatives say they want to be good neighbors, promising a state-of-the-art upgrade of the plant that will meet or exceed environmental standards for emissions and noise. The company has also agreed to town-requested envi ronmental and traffic studies, which should be completed by next month.

"We see the recent significant increase in development in the region as a long-term trend which we want to be in a position to service," wrote Timothy Higgins, vice president of development for Edgewood Development in Plainville, which is overseeing the process of seeking local and state approval for the plant''s upgrade.

The region has a number of large-scale projects that will bring with it miles of fresh pavement; for example, the widening of Route 128, the interchange redesign for the junction of Interstate 93 and Interstate 95, Dedham''s Legacy Place shopping and entertainment mall, and the Westwood Station residential, shopping, and office development.

While it is too soon to say whether the Norwood plant would produce asphalt for these projects, industry specialists say that having an asphalt plant nearby is ideal.

Asphalt compacts best within 30 minutes of production, resulting in pavement that will last longer, said Margaret Cervarich, vice president for marketing and public affairs for the National Asphalt Pavement Association.

A shorter hauling distance also keeps asphalt prices down, because truckers will burn less gas, saving taxpayers money on public road projects, she said.

Norfolk Asphalt would be a midsize operation for this area, producing up to 288 tons an hour, state environmental regulators say.

But opponents contend that Norfolk Asphalt belongs in a far less populated area. Santoro suggests locating it near the Rhode Island line in Wrentham, where he says the company has other land.

"We can''t afford that kind of manufacturing in this kind of area," Santoro said.

The Norwood plant is just west of Route 1 near the Neponset River, nestled within a neighborhood of older but well-kept houses. It is a throwback to a time when living near a factory was considered a good thing: Workers could walk to their jobs and go home for lunch with their families. The neighborhood is dotted with other plants that are still operating, including one that produces asphalt roof shingles.

The neighborhood has two community health programs, which are next to Norfolk Asphalt and sometimes offer outside activities: Norfolk Adult Day Health Center, which serves frail elders and disabled adults, and Riverside Community Care, which focuses on individuals with mental illness, substance abuse problems, and developmental disabilities.

"The consumers we service have compromised immune systems. Does this put them at greater risk of airborn carcinogens?" asked Chris Burke, Riverside''s director of facilities, adding some clients walk to the office and do some gardening outside the building.

Critics cite a host of health concerns, particularly cancer and respiratory problems, in reactivitating the plant. They say the process of heating up crude oil so that rock and other asphalt materials stick together can release carcinogens into the air.

They also predict a steady stream of asphalt trucks, running between the plant and construction sites, unlike the asphalt roofing business, which they say, relies more on trains. They worry about the trucks'' emitting diesel fumes, putting children in harm''s way, and releasing toxic dust during the loading or unloading of materials.

Although asphalt plants were once considered by the US Environmental Protection Agency to be one of the worst polluters, company officials say their plant will meet stringent safety standards.

A spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, which is reviewing the company''s application, sees no immediate problem. The proposed upgrades appear to meet or significantly exceed standards of limiting emissions to less than 10 tons a year for troublesome gases, said Joe Ferson, an agency spokesman.

The plant will also have a three-sided garage to help prevent the release of fugitive emissions when trucks load up, and the department will conduct a computer-modeled noise analysis of proposed sound-proofing measures, Ferson said.

The department could issue a decision by Dec. 30, but Ferson said some residents have filed a request that the department require the company to do a full environmental impact report on the plant, a process that could take a few months or longer.

To allay concerns, Norfolk Asphalt invited 60 residents to the plant for an information meeting in August, and 13 showed up, Higgins said.

The company will also present more details at a Zoning Board of Appeals public hearing, probably on Dec. 4.

The Zoning Board is trying to decide whether the plant is still considered active, even though it has not produced asphalt for two decades.

Company officials argue that they have maintained all the appropriate permits through the years and that the plant has not been dismantled.

The plant has also been used as a site for dispensing gravel and other construction materials.

Being considered still active means the company may not have to seek a special permit for storing hazardous material.

The town''s Building Department, though, considers the plant abandoned.

For Hylie and Diane Hutchins, who have lived near the plant for more than 30 years, the good news was when the plant stopped making asphalt.

"For many years, we were subject to the odors and possible pollutants from the plant while it was in operation," they wrote in a letter to the Zoning Board.

"We do not believe a facility of this nature belongs in immediate proximity to our residential neighborhood."

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