BERKELEY -- Kate Stepanski often watches the white plume move across her Fifth Street backyard and come through any open windows.
"There are actually particles that you see coming at you in the air," she said at a news conference called June 9 to publicize environmental problems West Berkeley residents attribute to their neighbor, Berkeley Asphalt & Ready Mix.
"It's hard to breathe," Stepanski said. "My partner has asthma. Most days he has to leave about five or six in the morning to escape before the plume comes."
The four northwest Berkeley residents addressing the media on the City Hall steps were just a fraction of the almost 100 who signed a Public Records Act request asking the city for documents to show how it has enforced 1999 court-ordered measures requiring the company to reduce noise, enclose loading areas and reduce fumes.
Owned by Texas-based Lehigh Hanson Corporation since 2005 -- but operating in Berkeley since the mid-20th century -- BARM is located on Third Street between Virginia and Cedar streets.
It "is easily located by the cloud of fumes spewing from its towering burner assembly where gravel and rock are mixed with the oily sulfuric residues of crude oil refining to create asphalt paving products," according to a paper prepared by the plant's neighbors, who further document Bay Area Air Quality Management District citations for BARM emission violations.
The news conference was facilitated by Alejandro Soto-Vigil, a rent board commissioner, aide to Councilman Kriss Worthington and District 1 City Council candidate.
Speaking on his own behalf, Soto-Vigil, who lives east of the problem area, said plant neighbors do not want to displace manufacturing firms.
"We want to make them environmentally sound so that the neighbors can breathe their air, have gardening programs and enjoy their (homes)," he said.
Speakers alleged the plant has expanded operations in recent years and said they hope the public records request would get city officials' attention.
They said District 1 Councilwoman Linda Maio and city staff have been unresponsive.
But Maio said in a phone interview that she'd forwarded the neighborhood's numerous emails to the deputy city manager, whom she believed was addressing the complaints.
Noting what she called the "incompatibility" of residents living alongside industry, Maio said, "We need to press more (for mitigations). We have to get tougher."
Lehigh Hanson spokesman Jeff Sieg said in an interview that the plant tries to be a good neighbor.
"The reality is that we're a manufacturing factory operating in a manufacturing zone," he said, underscoring that the operation is in compliance with local laws.
He said that the business has acted to address noise complaints, such as putting a muffler on its exhaust stack.
The "plume" people cite is "primarily steam," Sieg said.
He further stated that the plant hasn't expanded operations, but reduced them with the downturn in the economy in 2008. Neighbors likely experience increased activity because the plant is back to regular operations in the last couple of years, he said.
BARM is regularly inspected by the city and its managers speak regularly with the mayor, Sieg added.
City spokesman Matthai Chakko said by email that the city plans to meet with BARM senior executives later this month.
According to West Berkeley resident Terry Terrling, if documents reveal the city has done nothing to mitigate the noise and fumes, the neighbors will act.
"We don't want to take legal action," he said. "But we did in 1999 and if we have to we will do it again."