Public Comment

Commentary: Pacific Steel Casting: ZAB ’em!

By L A Wood
Tuesday May 09, 2006

Absent for over 15 years, Pacific Steel Casting (PSC) has finally made a return to the Berkeley Zoning Adjustments Board. The steel mill is requesting modification of their use permit No. 8957 for operating one of their three facilities on Second Street. A privately owned West Berkeley company, PSC has the distinction of being the city’s biggest stationary air polluter. This fact is also reflected in its long history of neighborhood conflicts, odor nuisance complaints, and abatement orders.  

Specifically, the mill has petitioned for changes to Facility No. 3, an open-air pour foundry permitted by ZAB in 1979. The last modification to this use permit was made in 1991. At the same time, an out-of-court settlement forced PSC to address its odor nuisance. Th e settlement required the foundry to “determine and alleviate the odor problem within 18 to 22 months.” In retrospect, ZAB should have waited to approve the changes to Facility No. 3 until the court-linked evaluations were complete. 

Although the 1991 per mit modification created real confusion for ZAB, from the foundry’s perspective, pushing the use permit forward made good sense. In this regulatory fog, the foundry managed to maneuver changes to its operations and postpone any real verification of the impacts. The folly of ZAB’s permit approval was obscured by PSC’s half-hearted attempt to comply with the settlement agreement. This left the evaluations for both the use permit and the settlement agreement incomplete, as they remain today.  

Pacific Steel wants permission to install a carbon filtration system for emissions control at Facility No. 3. Why hasn’t anyone questioned the logic of spending two million dollars to upgrade this residentially bound steel mill? PSC should be encouraged to move this sm allest and dirtiest portion of its operations to a less urban area. Instead, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD), which issues PSC’s air discharge permits, has only praise for the foundry’s financial commitment to the proposed system. 

P erhaps PSC now recognizes the political benefits connected to this investment, a lesson gleaned from the two existing absorption units in Facilities No. 1 and No. 2. Although these two units have been only moderately effective in suppressing odors, over t he long haul, they have been absolutely effective in deflecting public criticism of PSC’s emissions. Besides, how could anything possibly be wrong since the steel company claims it spent nearly two and a half million dollars to install both carbon systems in 1985 and 1991!  

Objecting to the installation of another carbon absorption unit at the foundry might seem a bit wacky since PSC is one of the largest steel mills of its kind in the country. However, even with the use of both carbon absorption beds at Facilities No. 1 and No. 2, odor complaints continue to be identified with both buildings to this day. Indeed, these absorption units may be linked to some of PSC’s unsolved odor events.  

The best available technology 

The community has been told repeate dly that PSC’s carbon absorption system is the best available technology. This has never been at the center of the debate over the proposed carbon beds. Instead, the discussion has been about how well the technology actually works at PSC. The history of t his pollution control system might come as a surprise to many, especially its proprietary connection to the foundry.  

At a 1999 BAAQMD hearing about the foundry’s odors, a spokesperson for PSC said, “We started this whole thing. We were the first ones wi th a carbon absorption unit.” When asked by the hearing board who else employs PSC’s system, it was revealed that while one company in Arizona was considering it, the foundry’s 15-year-old technology was not being used anywhere else in the country.  

When the foundry’s abatement scheme was first introduced in the mid 1980s, the board labeled it “fundamentally speculative” and suggested it to be an “overly optimistic process.” The BAAQMD board was not convinced that the proposed carbon system would elimina te the odor problems plaguing nearby homes and businesses. There were strong doubts as to whether the proposed system was really the best technology, much less the best odor control measure. 

Some have asked, “Why not look at the recycled carbon to unders tand what the absorption system is really doing?” Unfortunately, PSC’s used carbon is handled by a private contractor, which apparently distances the foundry from any reporting requirements. The recycler, who handles the dirty carbon for PSC, hauls it off to somewhere like Modesto, or, even out of state, to be incinerated.  

It is logical to assume that the ash from PSC’s recycled carbon is hazardous due to heavy metals that would inevitably be embedded in it. What toxic pollutants in PSC’s chemical inven tory are captured on the carbon beds? Which ones are not captured? Monitoring and evaluation of the carbon system’s effectiveness, by an independent expert, are desperately needed.  

The air board’s assumption that another carbon absorption system is goin g to improve the impact of emissions and odors at PSC is truly wishful thinking. For all that is known about the absorption system’s efficiency, it may, at times, actually exacerbate some of PSC’s toxic emissions. Moreover, the existing absorption systems have never been able to adequately control the foundry’s odors. No technology can ever protect nearby residents without an adequate buffer zone. This is why other Berkeley foundries have relocated.  


The health risk: how bad can it get? 

Of all the egreg ious acts of use permit abuse recorded in Berkeley, none is greater than ZAB’s acceptance of the Bendix report as a qualified health risk assessment. The scope of the health risk evaluation, as stipulated by the 1991 use permit, was to determine “if there is a potential for adverse health effects of chemicals stored and used at Facility No. 3. Bendix Environmental Research, which was hired as the contractor, chose instead to refocus the scope of the work to the evaluation of odors. This was an area in whi ch Bendix had no formal training or expertise.  

From the beginning, this report was off the mark. The health risk data, limited to information previously gathered by others, was presented without any qualification of its validity. ZAB further contributed to the distortion of this evaluation by allowing Bendix to refocus away from the use permit for Facility No. 3 and to broaden the scope of the report to include all three facilities.  

The real twist to the Bendix report is that the steel mill became its greatest supporter. In the last decade, each time the health risks from its operations have come up for discussion, the foundry points to the Bendix report to silence the public. PSC is quick to remind critics that it paid for this report and that ZAB en dorsed it. Recently, PSC has agreed to undertake another health risk assessment for all of its Berkeley operations. Neighbors have already objected to the proposed protocol as woefully inadequate. ZAB should demand more. 

Changes to the operations of Faci lity No. 3 in 1991 included a review under the guidelines of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The foundry’s request for flexible hours was deemed to have insignificant impacts. Since that time, however, PSC has changed substantially. In fa ct, Facility No. 3 has grown from 80 employees to a three-shift operation of 180 workers!  

PSC has tried to shrug off the huge growth of employees and production by arguing the foundry was underutilized in the last decade. This is a grossly misleading ex planation for the steady rise in plant activity and the near doubling of the steel tonnage in production over the last two years alone. This increase has already generated significantly adverse impacts that will only grow as PSC is allowed to expand its o perations.  

The use permit now demands a full environmental review. This review must include the proposed carbon absorption unit and its effectiveness as an emissions control. If ZAB moves for approval, it should require installation of continuous emissi on monitors. These CEMs can be connected electronically to BAAQMD, making the regulatory reporting of PSC’s stack emissions more transparent to ZAB and our Berkeley community.  

The 1991 use permit debacle is at the core of the current community conflicts with the steel mill, BAAQMD and the city. The injustice of this outdated permit, more than a decade of unanswered questions about emissions and health risks, and this shoddy regulatory oversight must stop. Pacific Steels Castings should be made to confor m. ZAB ‘em! 


L A Wood is a Berkeley resident.