Orcem California wants to turn the old General Mills Sperry flour plant in south Vallejo into a cement mill. (Craig Miller)
From 1869 through 2004, the city of Vallejo was known as a mill town -- milling flour, that is. The old General Mills plant once employed hundreds of workers, processing wheat grain into flour and shipping it all over the world.
From the Napa River shoreline, Steve Bryan, the president of Orcem California, points to the rotting dock pilings next to the defunct plant. “You can see it’s not a functional wharf today.”
That could change soon.
The cement company wants to turn the old flour mill in south Vallejo into a cement mill, and revive the silent bluff with ships, trains and trucks. The idea, first proposed in 2012, has found favor with out-of-work Vallejoans and some city officials, who like the company's offer to invest $1 million in local non-profits and the tax revenues the project is projected to generate.
But many other locals, along with environmental groups inside and outside the city, warn that the development would harm their families and act as a Trojan horse for an even greater threat: coal exports.
Making 'Green Cement'
Orcem wants to grind iron slag shipped from Japan to make what they call green cement. Iron slag is a byproduct of steel production. The company says recycling it to make cement reduces energy and emissions.
“The product that it [iron slag] substitutes for is one of the highest emitters of CO2 and other air pollutants in the world,” says Bryan.
After a ship is berthed, a clam-shell crane would scoop iron slag onto a series of conveyor belts. The mill would grind it down into a chunky grey sand that would be transported off-site to cement plants. The iron slag would replace traditional ingredients in cement.
The cement industry is one of the worlds largest producers of greenhouse gasses, producing 5 percent of global man-made carbon dioxide.
Orcem is a subsidiary of the cement maker Ecocem Materials. The company would partner with Vallejo Marine Terminal, a subsidiary of Vortex Marine Construction, to completely revamp the old port into a modern terminal that would also be used to move materials like iron ore, steel coils and gypsum.
Environmentalists Fear Smog, Noise, Traffic
But many residents and environmental groups are unimpressed with Orcem's green bona fides. They are lining up against the proposal.
“No Orcem” signs are staked into many front yards throughout the city.
Residents worry about increased smog from trucks and idling ships. More than 200 trucks would come and go nearly everyday. That means a big rig would rumble by about every four minutes.
The air pollution released from the plant would be equivalent to adding 7,000 cars to the road annually. Locals worry dirty air could drift to an elementary school that’s a quarter of a mile away. Residents like LaDonna Williams voiced her concerns to the plant’s president at a community meeting earlier this year.
“I won’t be accepting you telling me that it’s ok that you’re going to come here with a cement plant," says Williams. "We know we are going to have particulate matter. We’re going to have all the ships coming through. We’re going to have the trucks coming through.”
The Coal Question
Those are the known impacts. But this story is also about an export that’s not in the proposal… coal.
Locals don’t want to fight the same battle their neighbors in Oakland just fought.
Developers for a marine terminal planned for Oakland promised not to use it to export coal, but then they changed their tune.
Eventually the city banned coal, but the heated showdown makes Peter Brooks of Fresh Air Vallejo wary.
“They [Oakland residents] have told us repeatedly that they were promised, ‘Don’t worry there won’t be coal. Right now we are cautiously optimistic but we are not stupid," says Brooks. "We know that plans change and we know that if this site opens up it is possible that they won’t keep their word.”
The Sierra Club and Baykeeper worry about open train cars filled with coal because the coal dust could pollute every community and waterway along the tracks, and they worry it could boost Asia’s use of coal, worsening climate change. Plus, they're concerned that inhaling coal dust can cause asthma, heart disease and cancer.
Money and Jobs
Not everyone shares those concerns. Hattie Smith-Mills says her neighborhood needs a boost. She lives less than a mile from the plant.
“It’s nothing here," says Smith-Mills. "When General Mills went away it was, like, dead in this area.”
Industrial projects like Orcem's are high on the city's list of key priorities. Vallejo's strategic plan vows to "make Vallejo the Bay Area’s premier site for manufacturing."
Environmental groups agree the site should be redeveloped, but they would rather see a promenade with hotels, restaurants and shops.
City officials estimate the proposal would bring in about $150,000 the first year and ramp up to $500,000 in taxes and fees annually. Together, Orcem and Vallejo Marine Terminal also plan to hire up to 60 full time employees. The developers predict that more work will ripple out to the community for jobs like contract construction workers and gas station attendants.
That’s good news for Antoine Terrell. He’s a local truck driver in south Vallejo, washing his big rig in his front yard.
“In the neighborhood, there’s nothing but churches and liquor stores," says Terrell.
Officials will have to weigh the environmental costs and the economic benefits.
The project faces its first test before the Vallejo Planning Commission early next year. If it reaches the City Council, opponents speculate the vote could swing either way.
Bryan says it would be a shame to waste such a prime location.
“When you have a natural deep water berth, you have rail infrastructure in here and you're less than a mile from the interstate -- if you don’t do this for some type of logistics then you’re not getting the highest and best use," he says.