Local regulators have cited West Berkeley’s Pacific Steel Casting for releasing foul smelling air from its factories, plant General Manager Joe Emmerichs confirmed Thursday.
The citation, issued by the Bay Area Regional Air Quality Management District, came after the district’s inspector traced seven confirmed reports of a burning plastic smell last Wednesday to the plant. Air district rules require five confirmed reports within 24 hours to issue a violation notice.
The surge in complaints comes at a time when local residents and workers have begun mobilizing people to contact the air district with complaints.
Sarah Simonet, an elementary school teacher and renter, started the drive a year ago going door-to-door with flyers she printed. “I’m not convinced that the particles coming out of there are not toxic,” she said. “A lot of children breath the air out of that factory.”
“This is a major deal for us,” said Councilmember Linda Maio, who represents the affected area. “Now we are on the map with the air district.”
The citation includes a $1,000 fine and the threat of escalating fines if more violations follow. Although a citation does not require that the air district step up regulation of a plant, Maio said she has learned that because of the recent findings, the air district will perform a long-awaited air quality study at the plant.
Air district spokesperson Emily Hopkins confirmed that a study of Pacific Steel is scheduled, but added that it remained uncertain if it would include on-site testing or an analysis of past tests.
“There is definitely an odor problem in that area,” Hopkins said. “We are aware of it and we will proceed with deliberate speed.”
Complaint calls to the air district over Pacific Steel have been on the rise in recent years, air district records show. Last year the district received 112 smell complaints directed at Pacific Steel, compared to 49 in 2003 and 18 in 2001. Pacific Steel has topped the air district’s complaint list in Berkeley every year since 2000.
Emmerichs acknowledged that Pacific Steel was responsible for the odor, neighbors complained about Wednesday, but insisted that a foul smell was not tantamount to foul air. “Our emissions are not toxic,” he said. “We’ve been checked out before and we’ve passed every test.”
Located over three blocks at Second Street, just south of Gilman Street, Pacific Steel operates three factories that heat metal to a molten state and then pour it into molds. The melting and pouring process release compounds that neighbors for years have compared to the smell of burning pot handles.
After receiving 46 notices of violation from the air district between 1981 and 1985, Pacific Steel installed carbon filters at two of its factories. They determined that the third and newest factory, built in 1981, did not have enough activity to require the filter.
Emmerichs said that work had increased at the third factory, but held that it was not responsible for the reports of foul air.
The City Council has previously called for air studies at the plant. A 2000 city air monitoring report with a monitoring station near the plant did not provide a large enough sample to capture and analyze the smell, said city Hazardous Materials Manager Nabil Al-Hadithy. In addition to air monitoring studies, Al-Hadithy has asked the air district to require an independent analysis of the plant’s air filtration systems.
“We are waiting for the air district to give us a definitive answer to the risks,” he said. “Considering that they haven’t jumped at our requests, I assume they have determined this is not a high risk area.”
Al-Hadithy said previous air district studies have shown that plant emissions for cancer-causing substances have always just barely passed state standards. He added that the influx of new residential and park space in the area has spurred the city to seek updated studies.
Even if air studies show that the plant is not a health risk, the air district could come down on Pacific Steel for creating a nuisance. In 1982, the district issued an abatement order against the plant, “to cease and desist from discharging to the atmosphere odorous or annoying compounds generated in the course of melting and pouring operations.”
Over citizen objections, an air district hearing board in 2000 voted to lift the abatement order.
Alex Cox, an engineer at a firm five blocks from the station, was one of the seven people last Wednesday to register a confirmed complaint.
“I’m concerned about my health,” he said. “I don’t care about the smell. I just want to know that the air I’m breathing is clean.” Cox said he smells the “burning pot handle” smell on days when the wind blows east, and that several of his complaint calls have gone unconfirmed, because by the time the inspector arrives, the wind has changed direction.
Cox and Simonet said they wanted to press Pacific Steel to improve its air quality not chase it out of town. But L.A. Wood, an environmental activist who has opposed the plant for years, doesn’t see how it can remain in the face of the influx of residents and recreation-seekers to West Berkeley.
“It’s like two freight trains running into each other,” he said. “People aren’t willing to admit that the two uses are incompatible.”