In Vallejo, Proposed Cement Mill Divides a Community

Orcem California wants to turn the old General Mills Sperry flour plant in south Vallejo into a cement mill.

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.

Credit: Teodros Hailye/ KQED Science (Teodros Hailye/KQED)

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.

Protest signs are staked into many yards or pasted into windows throughout Vallejo.
Protest signs are staked into many yards or pasted into windows throughout Vallejo. (Lesley McClurg/ KQED)

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.”

Vallejo Marine Terminal has made a similar promise to locals but Brooks isn’t convinced they’ll keep it.

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.

Antoine Terrell hopes Orcem will hire him for a full time job if the plant opens in his neighborhood in south Vallejo.
Antoine Terrell hopes Orcem will hire him for a full time job if the plant opens in his neighborhood in south Vallejo. (Lesley McClurg)

“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.

In Vallejo, Proposed Cement Mill Divides a Community 21 November,2016Lesley McClurg
  • Deeqwan

    There is a reference to “Crawford’s town”, but no person cited or mention of what this means – is this another name for Vallejo?

    • Boudicca

      You have to listen to the audio portion, a wonderful woman named Brenda Crawford was interviewed.

  • Boudicca

    Residents are not divide–they are AGAINST this project. A small few who will make money are making noise in favor—do you know the term “greenwashing”? These too few industrial jobs are not worth an increase in cancer and asthma. Organizations who have done their research and are against the cement plant private industrial shipping port are:

    Public Health Club at Touro University California
    Pediatrics Club at Touro University California
    American College of Osteopathic Family Physicians at Touro University California
    California Health Professional Student Alliance at Touro University California
    Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community
    California Environmental Justice Coalition
    Cann I Dream Foundation
    Citizens for Vallejo
    Communities for a Better Environment
    Fresh Air Vallejo
    Friends of the Napa River
    Glen Cove Community Association
    Green Party of Solano County
    Lightworks / Solano
    New Pacific Studio
    Public Trust Alliance
    RAMP: Regional Asthma Management and Prevention
    St. Vincent’s Hill Neighborhood Coalition
    San Francisco Baykeeper
    Sandy Beach Neighborhood Association
    Sierra Club
    Sierra Club Napa
    Sierra Club Solano
    Stonewall Democratic Club of Solano County
    Sunflower Alliance
    Two Crones Farm
    United Democrats of Southern Solano County
    Vallejo Architectural Heritage Foundation
    Vallejo Heights Neighborhood Association
    Vallejo Heritage Team
    Vallejo Patient’s Coalition
    Voices of Vallejo

    • StefanoR99

      Agree, KQED’s unnecessarily trying to write a “balanced” story when the tone should be scandalous. It’s a scandal this project has gone this far. Orcem have obviously taken advantage of Vallejo when Vallejo was on it’s knees after the financial crisis and bankruptcy. We don’t need or want this project in our town. The fact that they have gone so far up in the bay to find a town to accommodate them suggests that no one else in the bay wants them either.

  • Frank Pasley

    The $1,000,000 from Orcem seems like a bribe to some people living here. It’s peanuts to the overall investment and Vallejo still has to repair the streets destroyed by heavy trucking every few months. Politicians on both sides of the question seem disingenuous.

  • Wanda Madeiros

    The proposed site is bordered on 3 sides by residential neighborhoods, the 4th side is the river. To allow this proposed project to be approved is just morally & ethically reprehensible. They are planning on trucks starting at 3:30 AM, they will be lining Lemon Street, a mix of residential & business. Can you imagine waking up every morning for the rest of your life at 3:30 AM and then smelling diesel fumes and breathing in particulate matter that is known to produce lung cancer, asthma, etc. Plus there are the ships that will be running their diesel engines the entire time they are docked (up to 5 days at a time), in addition trains, they come and go as they wish, something that both Orcem nor the VMT can control. Add to that industrial noise pollution, industrial light pollution, toxic run off into the Napa river which feeds into San Pablo Bay, which feeds into the S.F. Bay, which feeds into the Pacific Ocean.

    Orcem is trying to paint their product as “green”, what a joke. By the time they ship their product all the way from China to Vallejo, guess what China was the country that benefited from the green portion, shipping it thousands of miles negated the “green”. Vallejo is stuck with the air pollution, noise pollution, light pollution, water pollution, torn up roads, sick residents, devalued property & a reputation that it will NEVER be able to gloss over.

    During this last election Orcem and their consultants donated over $5000 to specific local politicians through a local PAC named Jumpstart. One of their Jumpstart board members is a paid employee of Orcem, their “local” representative… Collusion at its finest! Orcem is in the business of buying politicians to promote their agenda of greed.

  • Jeff Carlson

    A couple points. The slag would come from Asia in the form of chunky grey sand and would be milled on site to a fine talcum-like powder, some of which will inevitably escape. Milling slag in this fashion for use in concrete products recently contaminated a schoolyard in Davenport, up the coast from Santa Cruz, with the chromium 6 carcinogen made famous by Erin Brokovich. Also the VMT port use described does not conform with the Bay Plan and the BCDC has told the applicants that it will only be allowed on a temporary short term basis while they find other water-related industrial tenants. The draft EIR circulated for the project assumes the port as a permanent use and gives residents no chance to comment on the significant environmental impacts that future industrial tenants will contribute over the life of the project.

  • David D Cates

    We aren’t actually divided. The community does not want a cement plant on its waterfront.


Lesley McClurg

Lesley is a radio reporter covering medicine, space and environment for KQED Science. Her work has appeared on Marketplace, Latino USA, and NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Previously, she covered food and sustainability for Capital Public Radio in Sacramento. She began her media career at KCTS Television in Seattle. You can find her on Twitter at @lesleywmcclurg.

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