Preliminary air quality tests at West Berkeley’s Pacific Steel Castings indicate that the plant that regulators blame for emitting a pervasive smell of burnt rubber meets state toxic emission standards.
“All our calculations show that emissions are below threshold,” said Peter Hess, Bay Area Air Quality Management District deputy air pollution control officer.
Hess told about 70 residents at a West Berkeley town hall Meeting last Thursday that the air district would report back with final results in about three months and that the board would seek to solve the odor problem even if toxic emissions were within state standards.
“Whatever the plant does, it cannot cause an odor nuisance,” he said. “We’re here to enforce the state law.”
Meanwhile, in a move that upset several residents, the air district last week reassigned its Berkeley inspector Michael Bostick to Pittsburg/Antioch. Residents credited Bostick for his diligence in responding to their complaints.
“I felt like he did a good job,” said Sarah Simonet, a resident who has tried to mobilize neighbors to report foul smells. “It seems like a big mystery. The man who did all this work has disappeared.”
Kelly Wee, director of enforcement for the air board, insisted that Bostick’s reassignment was part of district-wide reorganization plan that shifted a dozen inspectors to fill gaps caused by resignations and promotions throughout the department.
Although Thursday’s meeting, chaired by Mayor Tom Bates, touched on numerous neighborhood concerns, Pacific Steel dominated the agenda. Last month the air district slapped the casting manufacturer with a Notice of Violation after it confirmed that more than five complaints of a burning rubber smell recorded over 24 hours were attributable to the plant. The notice resulted in a $1,000 fine and has led to the recent air monitoring at the company’s three units along Second Street just South of Gilman Street.
Neighborhood complaints over a burning rubber odor emitted by Pacific Steel stretch back over two decades.
Equipment in each of the three buildings heats metal to a molten state and then is poured into molds. The process results in the emission of particulate matter and organic compounds that can contribute to cancer. The plant produces steel castings that are often used in vehicles and in military parts. Rising orders in recent years have led to increased production at the three units, Pacific Steel Environmental Engineer Christina Chan confirmed.
After receiving 46 notices of violation from the air district between 1981 and 1985, Pacific Steel installed filters in two of its three units. However, Chan confirmed to residents that the third unit, built in 1981, remains without a filter and about 50 percent of the emissions from the second unit are unfiltered.
“We don’t take this lightly,” Chan said. But before the company takes action, she said, they would wait for air district studies attempting to pinpoint the source of the smell.
Neighbors reacted angrily to air board and company representatives, insisting they didn’t know the source of the smell.
“It pisses me off that after 25 years they still have to figure this out,” said Janice Schroeder, a member of Neighbors for Clean Air, which filed suit against Pacific Steel in the 1980s. “A lot of the information they gave us tonight we heard 25 years ago.” Several residents distrust the air board after its Board of Directors voted in 2000 to lift an abatement order against Pacific Steel.
Mayor Bates said he was “going to do everything I can to bring this into compliance.” Asked if Berkeley could force out Pacific Steel, he deferred to his aide Vicky Liu. She said that the West Berkeley Plan which seeks to maintain West Berkeley industry made removing the company difficult and that to make it easier for Berkeley to get rid of the company, the city would have to revisit the West Berkeley Plan.
Zelda Bronstein, a former Planning Commissioner and supporter of current West Berkeley zoning rules, took umbrage at Liu’s analysis and asked the air district representative why they decided to perform air monitoring studies at Pacific Steel five years after the City Council requested them.
“We’re a small agency covering a large area,” Hess replied. He said the agency has lost staff and has a projected budget deficit.
Asked by one member of the audience if the air board could shut down Pacific Steel, Hess said the board would need to convince a judge that the plant was an “overwhelming health burden” to the community.
One factor that could keep the city from trying to push out Pacific Steel is that it is one of the city’s top employers and sales tax generators. Chan said the company now employs 500 people, mostly in union jobs that don’t require a college degree.
“You talk about closing us up,” she said. “That’s 500 people who will be without a job.”›