Have you smelled it? For more than three decades, Berkeley residents have told stories about encountering the mysterious, Oceanview burnt pot handle smell. These citizen accounts often describe this nauseous odor as “burning rubber” and “toxic.” In fact, this northwest Berkeley phenomenon of the burnt pot handle smell has generated more nuisance phone calls to city officials and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) than any other environmental concern in Berkeley.
Even today, calls about the stink of burnt pot handles, or BPH, continue. Those who now telephone the BAAQMD Hotline to report this historic nuisance may be surprised to hear the tale of the BPH and why this odor continues unabated.
History has not recorded the first of what must now be hundreds of telephone complaints over the BPH or exactly when this smell began to blanket west Berkeley neighborhoods. Fifty years ago, the odious BPH would have been but one component of the primordial mix of industrial odors that hung over the Oceanview district. In the early 1970s during west Berkeley’s redevelopment, greater attention was brought to the area’s air quality. Not long after, the BPH odor was finally connected with the operations of Pacific Steel Castings (PSC), a large steel foundry that currently operates three plants at Second and Gilman streets.
Public controversy over the stink culminated in 1984 when PSC was forced into a series of zoning hearings to address the odor nuisance. As a result, the foundry was facing the closure of plant No. 2. However, instead of forced reductions in operations, PSC was placed under an unconditional order of abatement. The abatement decree appeared to be a step forward since PSC was forced to install odor emission controls. In addition, PSC was also subject to a complaint process to ensure compliance. But even after the installation of a million-dollar odor abatement system, the number of complaints from neighbors about the BPH smell did not lessen.
It should be noted that the BPH odors are thought to be sporadic and puff-like in nature. This helps explain why sustaining five official confirmations of this nuisance has been so problematic. BAAQMD has made minor changes in the complaint process, but little has changed in this cat-and-mouse game.
Today, the presence of BPH in northwest Berkeley is linked to the city’s historic pro-business stance regarding Oceanview. Because of PSC’s considerable tax base, the city has protected the foundry in every round of neighborhood insurgency over the BPH stink since 1984. This reluctance to confront the BPH nuisance or questions about community health was never more apparent than in 1997 when the City of Berkeley and BAAQMD authorized PSC to install an incinerator.
The incinerator was permitted at the same time PSC was under an abatement order that restricted any increase in emissions and odors. Approving the incinerator made a complete mockery of both the court-ordered nuisance abatement and air district’s hearing process.
From the beginning, PSC’s incinerator was little more than greenwashing since the new equipment has only exacerbated the area’s air pollution problems. The incinerator, which is called a thermo recycler by PSC, burns up the chemical binders used in their sand molds so they don’t have to haul those waste materials off site.
PSC’s argument for the incinerator was based on a claim that sand from the trucks hauling the sand molds off site caused a fugitive dust problem in the area. This was certainly true, but look at what PSC is allowed to do instead. Now the foundry stack is dispersing the same dust and pollutants into the air, impacting even a greater portion of the area’s residences. And predictably, the foundry’s incinerator has only added to the BPH odor emissions.
The sand recycler system may have saved PSC lots of money, but at what cost to residents and other local businesses? No wonder Oceanview has earned the dubious distinction of having the worst air quality in the city! Clearly, the incinerator was inappropriately zoned given its close proximity to neighborhood residences, schools and childcare activities.
After PSC cranked up its new incinerator, the City of Berkeley gave the foundry an environmental award, a real slap in the face for long-suffering and outraged residents. In response to increased public agitation over PSC’s operations, council requested that BAAQMD conduct a health risk screening for the factory’s emissions.
The air district has ignored this request for more than two years. The fact that the air district’s toxic screening has never flagged PSC or required a health risk evaluation of this “hot spot” is unconscionable given the huge amount of pollution produced by the foundry. Even if the health analysis is ever completed, the BAAQMD risk evaluation will mean little without verification via ambient air and soil testing.
The city also asked the air district to conduct a study of the cumulative impact of all permitted air dischargers within a quarter mile of PSC. Such a study would let nearby residents know if the concentration of so many BAAQMD discharge permits has adversely impacted their health.
The air district was quick to publicly take on this task, but now refuses to follow through. After all, such a study would show how inadequate the city zoning is when it allows live-work housing, residential neighborhoods, and our city’s homeless shelters to locate under the stacks of Oceanview’s industry.
Perfume and Politics
Despite the dismissal of its the longstanding, court-ordered abatement, PSC is still being scrutinized by its neighbors. The complaint line has never stopped ringing. Perhaps this is why PSC began to mask the BPH smell with a scented air freshener product. Over a year ago, BAAQMD was queried about this practice of scenting emissions. The air district callously responded that PSC wasn’t using anything that couldn’t be bought over the counter in any convenience store in Berkeley.
Today residents are discouraged from wearing scented products to city functions and must stand 20 feet from any business door if they choose to smoke. So why should PSC, or any business, have the right to perfume an entire neighborhood area without some kind of broader community health discussion. Masking the BPH smell may make a pervasive odor less obnoxious, but it doesn’t erase the concern over the toxicity of these scented emissions or other “odorless” airborne pollutants.
Another round of PSC community discussions is being orchestrated by the mayor’s office and Oceanview representative Linda Maio. Neighbors should expect little from this pro-business councilwoman. History shows that Maio has failed to address this reoccurring community concern about PSC’s stink in her dozen years of elected office. She has supported the new incinerator and the increase in PSC’s pollution as well as the overexpansion other large business operations in her district such as Berkeley Asphalt. It’s not surprising that this northwest neighborhood is choking, too!
The time has come to stop pointing the finger at Oceanview’s smaller industrial polluters and Interstate 80 auto activity instead of the 800-pound guerrilla, PSC. Have you smelled it? ?