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Newcomer Takes On Pacific Steel Casting Pollution By SUZANNE LA BARRE

Friday March 03, 2006

It was with a small nod to irony that Willi Paul, a professional community builder, admitted he made a name for himself in Berkeley by splitting a community group in two. 

After moving to Berkeley about a year ago, Paul, 46, joined a neighborhood watchdog group to protest Pacific Steel Casting, a West Berkeley steel foundry accused of generating noxious emissions. And now, he says, he is so fed up with the city’s inaction on the matter that he is considering challenging Linda Maio for her City Council seat. 

But when a Jan. 31 meeting between the West Berkeley Alliance for Clean Air and Safe Jobs and a local air quality agency failed to sufficiently address pollution abatement, Paul said he formed a splinter group that would get the job done. has one mandate, Paul said: “clean air. It is up to PSC to find a way to accomplish this critical task.” 

It was a departure for Paul, who has been involved in community planning projects for businesses and non-profits all across the country, but never spearheaded his own group.  

“I started out to be a team player in the neighborhood organization, and got frustrated with the lack of strategy, so I took the logical next step,” he said. 

He threatened to file a lawsuit. 

On Feb. 2, with the help of nonprofit mediators Neighborhood Solutions, Paul submitted a letter to Pacific Steel, demanding a complete emissions abatement plan by March 2—or risk a small claims suit. 

Pacific Steel General Manager Joe Emmerichs responded to the coalition’s ultimatum Wednesday.  

The Daily Planet obtained a copy of the plan, which delineates action already set in motion by a settlement forged between the steel company and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) in December. The settlement mandates that Pacific Steel implement a $2 million odor abatement system by October in addition to interim measures. 

“The company is going to move forward and do what it said it was going to do in the settlement,” said Elisabeth Jewel, a spokesperson for Pacific Steel. “We’re asking the community to give us a chance to make that work.” 

Jewel is a principal of Aroner, Jewel and Ellis Partners, the lobbying and public relations group which also includes former East Bay State Assemblymember Dion Aroner. The firm’s website explains that it “provides consultation on government and public affairs for public and non-profit agencies, associations and private sector clients.” 

The BAAQMD settlement has commanded extensive criticism from the coalition and other groups. 

Paul did not have the chance to review Emmerichs’ correspondence by press time. 

On Tuesday, Paul said if the lawsuit moves forward, he hopes to enlist 200 residents, each eligible to win up to $7,500. That means the steel company could be liable for as much as $1.5 million. 

In his letter, Emmerichs reproved the possible suit, saying litigation will only divert cleanup efforts. 

The foundry isn’t the only critic of legal action. 

The suit could force Pacific Steel into financial ruin, others say, taking away 600 West Berkeley jobs of which 575 are unionized. 

District 1 Councilmember Maio does not support the lawsuit. 

“She thinks it’s premature and not productive,” said Brad Smith, administrative aide for Maio. The councilmember was out of the office Thursday. 

Paul returned the criticism, arguing that Maio has been too slow to take action against Pacific Steel. 

“I’m very disappointed with Linda Maio’s performance,” he said. “Her record on Pacific Steel Casting is pathetic. She hasn’t cleaned up the air, she’s allowed the factory to stall and play games.” 

In fact, Paul is so unimpressed he said he wants to challenge Maio for her District 1 seat. Maio has been a Berkeley councilmember since 1992. 

Paul is a self-proclaimed “jack of all-trades, small business development guy.” He has worked as a business consultant, project manager and research assistant helping to develop communities for numerous businesses and non-profits, including, and the National Japanese American Historical Society. 

As a master’s student in urban and regional studies at Mankato State University in Minnesota, he developed “electronic charrettes,” or online planning communities, that were used to assist in the reuse of the city’s National Guard Armory and city library. 

He is in the process of completing a Ph.D. in environmental design and planning from Virginia Tech. 

Paul will hold an information meeting on on March 30. Details of the meeting are available on the organization’s website.