Environmentalists Speak Out Against Pacific Steel, By: Suzanne LaBarre

Friday March 17, 2006

The “backdoor agreement” that outlines pollution management of Pacific Steel Casting must be revoked, environmental groups say.  

About 20 representatives from several community organizations mounted pressure on the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) Board of Directors Wednesday to take action against a settlement forged between the Air District and Pacific Steel, saying it fails to adequately regulate the steel company’s emissions. 

“The settlement was cut behind the back of the community, and sends a message that the permits written by BAAQMD are not worth the paper they’re written on,” said Bradley Angel, a representative for Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice. “It makes a mockery of your public participation mandates and your environmental justice mandates.” 

Reached in December, the agreement details avenues Pacific Steel must take to curb odor emissions that many say smell like a burning pot handle. 

The company is composed of three plants at 1333 Second St. in West Berkeley. It was built in 1934. 

Residents have been complaining about its noxious fumes for more than two decades. 

Measures laid out in the agreement include installing a $2 million carbon abatement system, expected to reduce odor emissions by 90 percent, said Darrell Waller, Air District public information officer. Additionally, the company must implement interim abatement measures, draft an odor management plan and shell out $17,500 in fines for past violations. 

Though several speakers at Wednesday’s meeting urged cancellation of the agreement, the board could not take action because it was not on the agenda. The board is comprised of 22 public officials from Bay Area counties.  

According to Oakland City Councilmember Ignacio De La Fuente, who introduced himself at Wednesday’s meeting as vice president of the steel workers’ union, Pacific Steel is doing everything in its power to get clean.  

“That plant has been there 70 years and that plant has done everything to reduce emissions,” De La Fuente said. “This is a responsible company that has put in numerous resources to improve the quality of life for workers and for people who live in the community.” 

Opponents disagreed, citing a caveat in the agreement that could alter emissions permitting the company to actually increase pollution. 

“The community does not agree with the air district staff’s decision to modify permits to enable Pacific Steel to pollute more,” writes David Schroeder, a member of the environmental watchdog group West Berkeley Alliance for Clean Air and Safe Jobs, in a prepared statement. “This approach encourages industrial pollution and excludes the affected community from any say in the matter. Such policymaking is egregious and completely unacceptable.” 

Pacific Steel spokesperson and former state Assemblymember Dion Aroner said in an interview Wednesday that emissions amounts do not change under the settlement, they’re simply re-distributed. This corrects a permit error made in 2002, she said. 

The agreement is not clear on the point, however. Speakers at Wednesday’s meeting complained that they were left out of the process of drafting the cleanup plan. 

Waller said the community has been involved every step of the way. 

“When the community indicates they have a serious concern, we have been very responsive and we will continue to be,” he said. 

For many, the most pressing cause for concern is health.  

“Pacific Steel is a serious health problem. It is not just a nuisance,” said Berkeley resident Peter Guerrero, a member of the alliance. “BAAQMD’s attempts to address this are insufficient.” 

The facility has been shown to emit toxic substances, confirmed Nebil Al-Hadithy of the City of Berkeley Toxics Management Division, but levels have not been significant enough to pose health risks.  

However, the foundry has increased output in recent years, producing everything from bridge parts to busses, cable cars and wheelchairs. Thus, Air District officials commissioned a new health risk assessment. The report is due June. 

Some opponents aren’t willing to wait. In February, the watchdog group Cleanaircoalition.net threatened to file a small claims lawsuit against Pacific Steel. Other community members, who have supported the company in the past because it keeps nearly 600 union jobs in West Berkeley, are getting fed up. 

“We think it’s important that we not lose our industrial jobs,” said Ecology Center Executive Director Martin Bourque after Wednesday’s meeting. “But it’s not acceptable for that to happen at the cost to our community health and our environment.” 

Efforts put forth by the environmental groups to persuade Air District directors to formally consider their concerns at their next meeting largely fell on deaf ears. 

Director Chris Daly of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors expressed interest in forming an ad hoc committee to address the issue. The majority of the board did not share his sentiment, however. 

“I think it would be wrong for the board to step in,” said Alameda County Supervisor Scott Haggerty.  

At the urging of Air District Executive Officer Jack Broadbent, the board agreed to move forward with the details of the settlement at staff level, though there was some talk of staff drumming up a report by the next board meeting, April 5. 

Community activists said they will be there, pressing for new terms of the agreement.  

Aroner said their pressure isn’t likely to work.  

“It’s a binding agreement on both parties,” she said. “We can’t imagine why the air district would walk away from that settlement.””