The future is uncertain for a biodiesel plant that’s been a flashpoint for angry neighbors in San Diego’s Barrio Logan neighborhood.

The company recently shelved plans to upgrade their facility, and neighbors hope that means New Leaf Biofuels is considering moving.

The conflict flared up when the Barrio Logan company expanded the oil processing operation into a building across the street from its main manufacturing plant at the intersection of Sicard St. and Newton Ave.

Turning used cooking oil into biodiesel fuel is a smelly business and neighbors began complaining to local air quality regulators shortly after the expansion several years ago.

Air Pollution Control District officials issued citations and told the company to get the pungent odor out of the neighborhood’s air.

A year after the first complaints, New Leaf, working under the direction of air quality officials, installed an activated charcoal filter system designed to take the smell in the cooking facility out of the air.

The vents, fans and 11-foot tall carbon filters worked as advertised.

The overpowering smells were largely reduced, but the business still creates an odor, which prompted neighborhood advocates to question whether it was the right kind of business for the neighborhood.

“A heavy industrial biodiesel plant in the middle of a residential neighborhood?” said Nicholas Paul, a member of the Environmental Health Coalition. “We have single family homes right behind me here. An affordable senior housing complex to my right. And a preschool right around the corner.”

But New Leaf officials insist they only located the business in Barrio Logan because they were lured by state and city incentives. Those incentives were intended to encourage green industry and drive economic activity in the Barrio Logan census tract, which is an enterprise zone.

In a statement shared with KPBS, company founder Jennifer Case said the firm got along with neighbors and won awards from local officials for years.

Case said the goal was simple.

“To make a positive impact on the world by displacing petroleum diesel with biodiesel made from recycled cooking oil. The fuel made at New Leaf’s facility is the lowest carbon diesel alternative fuel in the state — 85% better than petroleum,” Case said in the statement.

But New Leaf officials concede the expansion caused odor issues.

The filters helped but the company thought building a pipeline under Sicard Street would keep oil transfers out of trucks and help contain the smell.

But that plan was shelved in the face of significant opposition from neighbors concerned the expansion would make it harder for the company to leave the area.

Case heard from those neighbors at a public meeting in August, pledging not to seek permission for the pipeline and to look at the possibility of moving the cooking oil processing to another location.

“For many, many, years industry has operated in Barrio Logan in a way that’s dismissive of community concerns for their quality of life,” said Paul.

Paul credited Case for showing up and listening to the neighborhood’s concerns.

“I’m sure it was hard for her to hear,” Paul said. “And then internalize that and take an action, withdrawing the permit, that’s a big step. And it’s a step towards the healing of the neighborhood.”

New Leaf officials insist they have been good neighbors and were responsive once concerns about the odors were raised.

Case said in her statement that the company only has positive intent for the neighborhood, but the neighborhood is not the only factor in the equation.

“We must also consider our thousands of restaurant customers, our ultra low carbon biodiesel users, and our dedicated team of over 50 employees.” Case said in the statement.

The company is asking air quality officials and the environmental health coalition to give them time to make improvements while they look for a new place to process the cooking oil.

But taking time does not sit well with Maria Fernanda Corral who has lived in a senior apartment complex across the street from the plant for eight years.

She called the last three years horrible and wants the plant to move now, not in 10 years.

“We know for sure we do not have the 10 years they’re asking for,” Corral said. “And most of us, we don’t. So, for us, it’s a matter of business, money, and probably greed.”

Corral and her husband locked themselves in their apartment during the pandemic in an effort to escape the smell.

“It did get better.” Corral said. “You know we have days that we can leave the windows open. My door is always open when we do have a good day. But then it always comes back. Specifically, evenings and weekends.”

Corral and others in the Barrio Senior Villas Apartment complex are suing New Leaf Biofuels. The class action lawsuit is asking the courts to award monetary damages for living with the smell and to keep the plant from expanding further.

By Erik Anderson / Environment Reporter
Contributors: Charlotte Radulovich / Video Journalist