Berkeley and Pacific Steel Casting have agreed to study the source of the burning rubber smell wafting from the company’s West Berkeley plant.
Since March, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District has issued three violation notices against Pacific Steel for emitting a foul stench from its faculties.
The air district had ordered Pacific Steel, at 1333 Second St., to study whether the particles emitted by its three factories also posed a health risk to local workers and residents.
But city officials argued that the air district request didn’t go far enough.
Now under a separate agreement with the city, Pacific Steel will perform a more detailed health risk analysis and submit to tests aimed at identifying the specific source of the odors that have generated neighborhood complaints for the past 30 years.
“We have to get to the bottom of this,” said Councilmember Linda Maio, who represents the affected neighbors. “For so many years we’ve been in the same situation where we have these odors and we don’t know exactly where they’re coming from.”
Maio has scheduled a public meeting about Pacific Steel for 7 p.m. Aug. 10 at the James Kenney Recreation Center, in James Kenney Park.
The study will be prepared by environmental consultant Environmental Resources Management (ERM) and supervised jointly by the city, Pacific Steel and a monitor assigned by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The air district must approve guidelines for the Pacific Steel study.
City Toxics Manager Nabil Al-Hadithy said the agreement between the city and Pacific Steel would require about four times more work than was initially required by the air district.
Local residents, however, said they were skeptical of the proposed study and the air board’s promised scrutiny of Pacific Steel.
Located on more than three blocks of 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. Neighbors said they suspect that the melting and pouring process releases compounds they have compared to the smell of burning pot handles.
Pacific Steel has topped the air district’s complaint list in Berkeley every year since 2000, with the number of complaints rising from 18 in 2001 to 112 last year as more people continued to move into industrial sections of West Berkeley.
While Pacific Steel has taken responsibility for the foul odor, it has insisted that the smell doesn’t constitute a health risk. Prior studies by the air district showed that emissions of cancer-causing particles were barely within state standards, according to Al-Hadithy.
The air district ordered the new health testing because of resident concerns, said Terry Lee, the air district’s director of public relations.
Lee said that because the company has increased production in recent years it would not be permitted to use old data as a basis for the study as feared by neighbors.
“The air district remains somewhat suspect to people in the community,” said Chris Kroll, a member of the recently formed West Berkeley Alliance for Clean Air and Safe Jobs.
“It’s just incomprehensible that they don’t know what is causing that that smell and whether there are health impacts.”
In 1982, the district issued an abatement order against the plant ordering it to stop releasing foul odors. An air district hearing board in 2000 voted to lift the order.
The West Berkeley Alliance has called for Pacific Steel to provide further background data on the plant and demanded that the air district accept a series of guidelines for testing the stacks. It says the guidelines are necessary to determine the source of the smell and whether it poses a public health threat.
To ensure that the study is done in public view, the group is demanding that the city establish a citizen task force to meet formally with Pacific Steel, the air district and the Lawrence Berkeley Lab monitor.
Al-Hadithy said that ERM is revising the study guidelines and that they will be available for public comment once they are complete. Because of Berkeley’s additional demands on Pacific Steel and the requirement for public input, Al-Hadithy said the study would last significantly longer than the three months initially projected by the air board.
Meanwhile, Lee said Pacific Steel had until the end of the month to submit to the air district a plan to lessen the foul air nuisance.
If the air district is dissatisfied with Pacific Steel’s response, Lee said it could take the company before its hearing board as it did during the 1980s.
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.
Joe Emmerichs, Pacific Steel’s general manager, declined to comment for this story.
The agreement between Berkeley and Pacific Steel calls for a study of the plant’s sand recycler, a review of the factories both for odors and health risks, and an engineering analysis to determine how much it would cost to remedy problems identified in the study.
Pacific Steel agreed to the additional studies, Maio said, at a meeting last month attended by herself, Mayor Tom Bates, and Oakland City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente, a union official who represents the plant’s unionized steel workers.›