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Regulators question Dutra asphalt plant

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A company seeking to build a controversial asphalt plant on the banks of the Petaluma River must do more to explain why the location is better than other alternatives, according to a letter from a state water regulator.

In a Nov. 10 letter to The Dutra Group, which is seeking to build the plant, the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board said the company did not sufficiently explain to regulators why the location across from Petaluma’s Shollenberger Park was better than various other sites. The finding is one of several approvals needed before the project can go forward.

Dutra plans to revise its application in the near future, said Aimi Dutra, the company’s director of communications and government affairs.

“Dutra will be modifying our submittal to RWQCB to address the points raised in their recent letter. As has happened with other agencies during the permitting process, sometimes more information is needed or further clarification is required to address agency concerns, and we will be responding to those in the short-term,” Dutra said in an email.

Opponents of the plan pointed to the development as highlighting what they argue are inherent problems with building the plant at the site, an area just south of Petaluma city limits known as Haystack Landing.

“So far, it does not look good for Dutra on this site,” said David Keller, director of the Petaluma River Council, a group that has long opposed the project.

Keller provided records of the response from regulators and Dutra’s application to the Argus-Courier.

The letter marks the latest chapter in the decade-long drama surrounding the proposed Dutra plant, which would be located on a 38-acre site just across the river from Petaluma’s 165-acre Shollenberger Park. The company operated a former quarry and asphalt plant at a nearby location from 1968 to 2005, when the operation was shut down to make way for a new housing development.

The project, approved by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors by a 3-2 vote in 2010, has attracted resistance at seemingly every milestone. The city of Petaluma itself spent tens of thousands of dollars in a legal challenge to the project just beyond its borders, which was lost on an appeal funded largely by donations in 2014.

The water board asked Dutra to clarify 11 points in its so-called “alternatives analysis,” a 22-page report that focused on reasons why the riverside location was the best option with the least environmental impact.

A Dutra consultant asserted in the report that the barge access possible at the location was a key element of the company’s proposal, and that trucks ferrying aggregate materials would be challenged navigating surface streets in alternatives like a downtown Petaluma location. Other alternatives faced complications related to issues like private dredging and additional permitting requirements, according to the report.

“Based on this analysis, the proposed project was determined to be the LEDPA,” or “least environmentally damaging practicable alternative,” wrote Lucy Macmillan, a Mill Valley-based environmental scientist.

Yet the water board said Dutra needed to do more to demonstrate a sufficient area demand for asphalt in the first place, as well as to better explain why other locations would be prohibitive. It also asked Dutra to prove that neighboring Shamrock Materials would allow barges servicing the plant to utilize its dock and electric crane.

Other locations listed as alternatives to Haystack Landing included the Sonoma County Landfill, Port Sonoma, Novato’s Redwood Landfill, Downtown Petaluma, a site off Hopper Street and a location near Lakeville Highway and Highway 37, as well as the former Dutra site upstream of the Highway 101 bridge over the Petaluma River.

Aimi Dutra, the company spokeswoman, did not provide an updated timeline of the project. In a late 2015 interview, Dutra said the plan was to be operating in 2016.

With newcomers flocking to Petaluma in recent years, Joan Cooper, founder of Friends of Shollenberger Park, noted that the yet-unbuilt Dutra plant has fallen off the radar for many residents. Yet across the river, Shollenberger Park still attracts what her group estimates as 150,000 visitors every year.

“When you mention Shollenberger Park, they perk up,” she said. “We have thousands of supporters who don’t want to see this park polluted.”

(Contact Eric Gneckow at eric.gneckow@arguscourier. com. On Twitter @Eric_Reports.)