Election Section

Berkeley’s Insidious Incinerator By LA WOOD

Tuesday April 19, 2005

Gilman Street and I-80 mark the entrance to Berkeley’s Oceanview District. The highway exit is also delineated by the puffing white smokestacks of Pacific Steel Castings, one of Berkeley’s last remaining foundries. All who drive through northwest Berkele y knows it’s time to roll up the car windows because of the burnt smells that permeate the area.  

Several weeks ago, Pacific Steel was finally given another Notice of Violation by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) for odor nuisance. H owever, neighbors around the facility should expect nothing from the air district. Fines are mostly small in comparison to profits, so businesses like Pacific Steel simply shrug off the expense as part of the cost of doing business.  

This time though, the odor violation has turned the focus onto the foundry’s incinerator, which was installed in 1998, and has sparked a debate over the air district’s permitting practices. Residents are asking how “a green community” like Berkeley, which has the reputatio n of “not liking anything,” could buy in so completely to this industrial incinerator. The answer to this question lies within the permitting process, a regulatory morass more insidious than the incinerator itself.  


Follow the Money  

It is unclear whethe r Pacific Steel’s incinerator was the brainchild of the foundry or was more a promotion effort by the California Integrated Waste Management Board (CIWMB). This state-funded agency works with clients like Pacific Steel in waste reduction and recycling eff orts by offering low-interest loans and technical assistance including project coordination.  

Since CIWMB also helps with expediting the necessary permits, the agency must have realized that the only way to force this “burn barrel” technology onto an y city within the San Francisco Basin, much less Berkeley, was if the public was kept unaware of what it really was. California Integrated Waste must have also known that the regulatory shelter created by the Bay Area air district made Pacific Steel Casti ngs, and Berkeley, the best candidate for the incinerator. Ironically, as it turns out, the best place to hide an incinerator is amidst a big stink, like in Oceanview.  

So, in 1997 the foundry was awarded a loan for $648,950 to help purchase the incinera tor. CIWMB quickly managed to line up broad support for the pilot project by simply calling it “green.” Of course, CIWMB enjoyed ample industry support for the incinerator because of its potential economic impact on the foundry industry in the Bay Area an d el sewhere.  

Even Congresswoman Lee was enticed into Berkeley to help the city and council receive the Ed McMahon-sized check for the Pacific Steel’s Second Street incinerator. And with that, Berkeley was turned into the poster child for this “new” inc inerator technology and used to sell it to other communities. All the political kudos, awards and celebration of this grand regional enterprise obscured a serious dilemma created by the incinerator: its land use incompatibility.  


Public Health and Land Use  

The incinerator pilot project was certainly not a difficult sell when it came to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. When the permitting request for the incinerator was finally presented, backroom deliberations reveal that the air district had q uestions about the proposal and the legal need for an environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Unfortunately, that discussion quickly evaporated.  

It appears that to assuage the political pressure associated with this i ncinerator permit, BAAQMD trespassed beyond the legal limits of the law to offer Pacific Steel a categorical exemption. The air district realized a CEQA review would daylight more than the foundry’s incinerator and would go further to expose a deca de of c orrupt BAAQMD permitting practices at Pacific Steel Castings.  

The air district has a history of taking the regulatory low road, but in Berkeley, they managed to hit a new low. Although the categorical exemption successfully screened the public f rom know ing about the incinerator, it did not relieve BAAQMD of its legal obligation under CEQA for an environmental review. In fact, the trigger to require a CEQA evaluation for the incinerator is based on the state’s land use restrictions as pertains t o the pro ximity of schools and childcare facilities.  

BAAQMD was well aware of the existence of the Duck’s Nest on Fourth Street and within two blocks of the new Pacific Steel incinerator. In 1988, the air district was asked by parents of this childcare center to evaluate the emissions coming from the steel foundry.  

In 1999, the California Air Resources Board (CARB), which oversees the permits handed out by BAAQMD, came to Berkeley to investigate Pacific Steel and related public health questions. CARB took one look at the urban incinerator along with its questionable air permits and hightailed it back to Sacramento.  

Instead of addressing this crucial public health concern, the state and regional air agencies have both chosen to propagate the myth th at Pacific Steel’s emissions are harmless and that all of its pollution is being captured by a carbon scrubber. Nothing could be further from the truth! The record shows that the steel foundry clearly has process emissions that have no air pollution contr ols.  


Tit le V and Environmental Justice  

The roots of this environmental injustice run so deep as to have even distorted Pacific Steel’s accountability under its federal Title V permit. This permit is required under the Clean Air Act, which is overseen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. However, direct responsibility for this federal permit has been farmed out to the Bay Area air district. The Title V program was designed to identify large air dischargers, like Pacific Steel, and to require m ore environmental accountability from such major facilities. However, as the record shows, BAAQMD’s approval of the foundry’s federal permit totally negates Title V’s stated purpose.  

Changes to the Title V program in the mid 1990s allowed some major fac ilities to petition for reclassification as minor facilities thus reducing their permit requirements for reporting, monitoring, and assessments. Unbelievably, the air district allowed Pacific Steel this lower reporting status. BAAQMD argued that even thou gh the thre e main buildings of the foundry are located on Second Street, one building was classified as “noncontiguous.” Hence, Pacific Steel Castings received two minor facility permits instead of one major facility permit.  

The net result was to allow the foundry to report in a piecemeal fashion, which made Pacific Steel’s operations appear much smaller on paper than they really are. The air district then used this to justify less environmental accountability from the foundry. For over a decade, this has conveniently kept Pacific Steel from showing up on the EPA’s regulatory radar. It’s no wonder that residents have been waiting three years for a simple health risk screening from the air district, and why the regulatory folder on the foundry is so thin! And yes, Title V should have flagged the new incinerator.  

BAAQMD’s regulatory machinations have left our community with less understanding today about the toxic impact of the foundry’s emissions than residents had a decade ago. Now Pacific Steel can smugly stand behind the air district and continue to publicly state that their emissions are not toxic only because their permit does not require those emissions to be tested. This convoluted regulatory fraud has exempted Pacific Steel from answering any embarrassing questions. Even worse, it has allowed BAAQMD to successfully foist this new incinerator with its additional emissions onto a neighborhood already overburdened by pollution.  

There are clearly many gaps concerning the public’s protection in m ixed-use hou sing and huge shortcomings in the state’s air regulations. But if BAAQMD and CARB won’t enforce current health and air quality standards, what difference will any future changes and protections really make in California’s air quality, or Berk eley’s? Clean air begins with honest regulation. Shut down Pacific Steel Castings’ incinerator now!  


LA Wood is a Berkeley resident.?sD