Community Meeting Addresses Steel Plant Issues By Judith Scherr

Friday February 17, 2006

Fearing their jobs could be at stake if the plant was forced out of Berkeley’s shrinking industrial zone, some 200 Pacific Steel Casting workers bearing hard hats came to a Wednesday night community meeting at the West Berkeley Senior Center to laud their employer for the healthy working conditions they say they find at the plant. 

But several dozen neighbors of the 1333 Second St. foundry, many of them members of West Berkeley Alliance for Clean Air and Safe Jobs or the Clean Air Coalition, came to the meeting called by City Councilmember Linda Maio with lingering questions and concerns regarding the adequacy of a December settlement between the Bay Area Air Quality Management District and the 72-year-old steel plant. 

The agreement mandates a $2 million carbon filtration system and imposed a $17,000 fine for past emission violations. 

Calling the plan “seriously flawed,” and accusing the parties of having written it without community input, West Berkeley Alliance activist Janice Schroeder said her organization’s concerns include an “ineffectual” odor complaint process: neighbors say they call the air district, but no inspectors are available after 5 p.m. Schroeder also cited the lack of a public updated emissions inventory report and the possibility that new permits for the filtration system will allow increased emissions. 

Emissions listed in Pacific Steel documents can cause a number of health problems including cancer and organ damage, Schroeder said.  

The Clean Air Coalition shared many of the West Berkeley Alliance concerns. Spokesperson Willi Paul said that his organization wants PSC to study non-toxic alternatives to the binder process, part of the steel casting procedure. (Binders hold the sand molds together and emit toxic substances.) 

Further, Paul blasted PSC for what he called, “a dog and pony show,” bringing the PSC workers with their hard hats into the meeting so that a jobs-versus-the-community climate would be created.  

The Clean Air Coalition said it plans to use the courts to force PSC to better practices.  

Organized by the Glass, Molders, Pottery, Plastics and Allied Workers International Union, the factory workers said they had come to speak to the fact that, even though they work inside the plant, they do not suffer from work-related health problems. 

Union representative Carlos Costa lauded Pacific Steel for its efforts to protect the environment. 

“Pacific Steel is always looking for new techniques,” he said. “Let Pacific Steel solve the problem.” 

Peter Hess, the deputy air pollution control officer for the Bay Area air quality district, promised that the community would be involved in the steps for choosing, permitting and installing a new filtration system. 

On March 31, Pacific Steel is scheduled to submit an odor abatement plan and an updated emissions inventory report will be released May 19. The new carbon filtration system will be installed by Sept. 30 and the abatement system is scheduled to be fully operational by Oct. 15. 

Councilmember Maio promised the city’s help in fast-tracking permits for the new filtration system. 

A health risk assessment is also underway and will be completed by June 10. 

“We’ll have a very good picture of what the emissions are,” said Brian Batement, the air district’s director of engineering. 

But the community wasn’t satisfied that the testing would resolve the health issues. In response to those concerns, Maio introduced Michael Wilson, an environmental health scientist and researcher at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health. 

“I’m not confident that the health risk assessment will get us where we want to go,” Wilson said. 

Instead, he urged what he called a toxic use reduction initiative strategy. Rather than using funds to filter or reduce emissions, he said, it would be better to reduce the use of toxics such as lead and chromium from the outset.  

But finding new ways of casting steel would not be easy. “The problems facing us today won’t go away overnight,” he warned..