Pacific Steel Faces New Lawsuit From Environmental Group

By Suzanne La Barre
Friday May 19, 2006

An Oakland-based environmental nonprofit is threatening to sue Pacific Steel Casting in federal court. 

Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) plans to file suit against the West Berkeley steel foundry 60 days from May 5 for violating the Clean Air Act, federal legislation enacted in 1990 that sets limits on air pollution. 

The lawsuit, to go before the United States District Court for the Northern District of California, accuses Pacific Steel of exceeding emissions limits and failing to adequately report its activities. According to a notice of intent to file suit, CBE intends to sue for each violation from 2002 to the present. Future breaches may also be included, because the plant continues to emit pollutants at higher levels than what’s permitted, the notice says.  

“Our main goal here is to force Pacific Steel to comply with the law,” said Adrienne Bloch, senior attorney for CBE. “[West] Berkeley is primarily a community of color, there are a lot of schools, daycares and homes for the elderly. People there are constantly exposed to toxins. ... We want to make sure that Pacific Steel acts like a responsible neighbor.” 

Under the Clean Air Act, Pacific Steel could owe as much as $37,500 per violation in civil penalties, though it is not known exactly how many violations the company will be held to, said a staff attorney with the Golden Gate University School of Law Environmental Law and Justice Clinic, the firm representing CBE. CBE may also sue to recoup legal costs and other fees. 

Pacific Steel has the opportunity to correct the problems between now and July 5, Bloch said. Veteran environmental activist L A Wood says that isn’t likely. 

“I believe Pacific Steel still feels they’re very insulated from the recording process,” said Wood, who approached the law clinic several years ago about Pacific Steel and facilitated the current lawsuit. “I think they’ll kick and scratch … but I don’t think Pacific Steel is going to meet the demands of the attorneys.” 

Pacific Steel spokesperson Elisabeth Jewel, of Aroner, Jewel and Ellis Partners, declined to answer questions about the lawsuit; however, she released the following statement: “The company is evaluating the claims made in this notice to sue and looks forward to responding.”  

Located on Second Street in West Berkeley, Pacific Steel produces steel parts up to 7,000 pounds, and is the third largest plant of its kind in the country. 

It has also been the subject of neighborhood complaints for more than two decades. Residents claim the foundry releases a noxious “burning pot handle” odor and some say it poses a health risk. The plant is known to release hazardous pollutants such as phenols, benzene, formaldehyde and manganese, but whether they occur in dangerous amounts is not known. A health review assessment is due out in June. 

A sharp rise in production in recent years, in conjunction with the lifting of an odor abatement order in 2000, has exacerbated odor problems. Registered complaints to the environmental regulatory agency the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) grew from 18 in 2001 to 533 in 2005. 

In December, BAAQMD reached a settlement agreement with Pacific Steel detailing measures the foundry must take to come into compliance with environmental regulations, including the construction of a $2 million carbon-abatement filter system. Pacific Steel was also forced to pay $17,500 in fines for nine emissions violations. But many residents felt the agreement was insufficient, and they demanded further action. 

An environmental group formed in February, threatening to take Pacific Steel to small claims court. Infighting stalled the suit’s progress, and plaintiffs, each eligible for as much as $7,500 in damages, have yet to file suit. The litigation is unrelated to the federal case. 

Some believe BAAQMD will take exception to the CBE action, because going to the courts could simply interfere with measures already underway to curb the company’s emissions. Several high-level BAAQMD officials did not return the Daily Planet’s calls for comment. 

Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, a recent appointee to the BAAQMD Board of Directors, said he is committed to making sure the facility is clean and safe, though he doesn’t know if going to the courts in the way to do it. On Wednesday, he said he was not familiar with the federal case. 

Councilmember Linda Maio, who represents District 1, where Pacific Steel is located, said she was receptive to CBE’s action. 

“What I’m interested in is continuing to get Pacific Steel to cut down on emissions we can smell and emissions we can’t smell that are dangerous,” she said. “I’m interested in studying what CBE is doing toward that end, and getting Pacific Steel to the table faster. So if this is what will do it, fine.”