Organizer Leaves Suit Against Pacific Steel

By Suzanne La Barre
Tuesday May 16, 2006

The founder of the environmental organization that spearheaded legal threats against Pacific Steel Casting is stepping away from the lawsuit due to infighting with the mediation service, Neighborhood Solutions, though other plaintiffs are still moving forward.  

Cleanaircoalition.net Director Willi Paul announced Friday in an e-mail entitled “Goodbye and Best of Luck” that he will leave his post as organizer of the small claims lawsuit against the West Berkeley steel foundry that many neighbors have accused of emitting noxious odors because a dispute with Neighborhood Solutions Executive Director Grace Neufeld was interfering with the legal process.  

“We had a difference of opinion about how to handle some of the procedural things,” Paul said Friday. “It came down to Grace versus me, and a difference of style and opinion.” 

Neufeld said the Neighborhood Solutions board of directors, comprised of five members, voted to remove Paul from its bill of clients. She declined to discuss further details on the record. So far, no lawsuit has been filed. 

The rift between Paul and Neufeld developed primarily over how to deal with the media and the pace of the lawsuit, Paul said. 

After sending several demand letters to Pacific Steel, Paul didn’t feel plaintiffs needed to give any more warning before filing suit. Paul also relished maintaining a presence in the media. He repeatedly contacted the Daily Planet with updates and letters to the editor, and logged mentions in the local papers on cleanaircoalition.net. 

Neufeld, he said, is “more secretive, guarded” about the media.  

“I wouldn’t describe it as secretive,” she said. “I just don’t like when you try your case in the press. I thought it would be damaging to the plaintiffs …When we go to the media, that will be decided by an executive group and not an individual.” 

Paul took Pacific Steel activists by storm in February when, as a relative newcomer to West Berkeley, he announced he would file a small claims lawsuit against the company, citing the failure of community members and higher-level officials to compel the foundry to clean up. He marshaled supporters with his ad-hoc organization and website, which advertised that residents could sue Pacific Steel for up to $7,500 for damages.  

Paul retained Neighborhood Solutions, an Oakland-based nonprofit that has helped residents file claims against drug houses, blighted properties and other neighborhood nuisances, to facilitate the suit. Almost 20 people signed on, Paul said earlier this month. Neufeld would not confirm or deny the number of plaintiffs. 

Many Pacific Steel activists, including City Councilmember Linda Maio, have criticized the court action because it could counteract efforts already underway to clean up pollution. Some expressed concern for a loss of jobs—Pacific Steel hires about 575 union employees—if the foundry is financially ruined by residents’ claims. Paul initially said he hoped to corral 200 litigants, which could have encroached on company coffers by $1.5 million. 

Paul, who has said he’s thinking about running for Maio’s seat on City Council, leaves the cause with a heavy heart. “This is akin to a CEO getting kicked out of their own company,” he said. 

West Berkeley resident Andrew Galpern, who joined the lawsuit a month ago because he believes it is “a direct and powerful way for residents to get Pacific Steel to clean up their dirty business” does not believe Paul’s absence will affect the other litigants. 

“It doesn’t change it at all, we’re still moving forward,” Galpern said in an e-mail.  

Cleanaircoalition.net will not pursue activism against Pacific Steel in any official capacity, until Neighborhood Solutions completes its work, Paul said. In the meantime, he will turn his attention to other local environmental work.