Public Comment

Commentary: Zoning Board Ignored PSC Health Hazards

By Chris Kroll, Janice Schroeder and Davis Schroed
Friday May 19, 2006

The May 11 Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB) meeting offered a peek into how things get done here in Berkeley; as in most other places, who you know trumps everything. We are members of the West Berkeley Alliance for Clean Air and Safe Jobs and attended the ZAB meeting. While the Alliance favors cleaning the air and preserving union jobs at Pacific Steel Casting (PSC), the Alliance opposes the staff’s finding that PSC’s request for a use permit to construct a carbon adsorption system for Plant 3 is categorically exempt from review under the California Environmental Quality Act. PSC and its regulator —the Bay Area Air Quality Management District—claim the carbon system will resolve odor problems. However, the community has not just been asking for odor nuisance complaints to be resolved. For a quarter century, the West Berkeley community has been trying to get PSC to clean up its act by ridding operations of toxic pollution, mitigating nuisance emissions, and providing full transparency to prove the air is clean. At the ZAB meeting, community members of the Alliance had many unanswered questions that the city staff report skirted by finding the project exempt.  

Why is the Alliance opposed to a quick approval of PSC’s use permit request? 

The proposed carbon system filters odors but not all pollutants. PSC installed carbon adsorption systems in Plant 2 (1985) and in Plant 1 (1991), yet a Pacific Institute analysis shows that, of all Bay Area Toxic Release Inventory facilities ranked for carcinogen risk-related impacts in 1997, Pacific Steel Casting Company ranks 2nd highest for carcinogen risk out of 30 industries. A 2006 report by Dr. Michael Wilson of the University of California Berkeley’s School of Public Health states that the U.S. EPA stationary source risk ratings for 2,171 industrial sites in six Bay Area counties ranked Pacific Steel Casting the 12th highest risk. A 2004 report by the Oakland/Berkeley Asthma Coalition states that Berkeley has an asthma hospitalization rate 2.5 times the national Healthy People 2000 objective, disproportionately among people of color. The study also states that West Berkeley has the highest rate of asthma emergency room visits in all of Berkeley, in part because, “These areas are more heavily impacted by industry that releases a multitude of pollutants into the air….”  

According to PSC’s engineer, Chris Chan, PSC did not use Plant 3 to its full capacity until after 2000. This means PSC posed a serious cancer risk while carbon systems were present and used in Plants 1 and 2—and Plant 3 was not operating fully. Now Plant 3 operations are increasing dramatically. There are data confirming community fears of serious health problems from PSC’s toxic pollution, but where is data refuting these fears? 

The Alliance has requested—and never received—material safety data sheets, updated and comprehensive emissions inventory data, and complete flow diagrams of the operations, sources and processes in PSC’s facility. If PSC’s updated emissions have not been analyzed, how can we know that the carbon system will capture all pollutants? Even the city manager could not get access to this data; there is no reason for the city to presume PSC is exempt from a CEQA environmental assessment before its permits are approved. 

The Alliance also has concerns about the carbon adsorption system potential to interact, react and create new, more toxic byproducts. The Alliance believes that when the emissions inventory and flow diagram data are made public and analyzed, as they should have been in the staff report, vital concerns can be addressed. The staff report did not reference or analyze the emissions inventory or the flow diagram. Our basic point to the ZAB last Thursday was that this was the City of Berkeley’s opportunity to do a thorough analysis of the proposed carbon adsorption system in the context of existing plant operations. PSC’s use permit has not been reviewed by the city since 1991, and since 2000 the company’s production levels have increased each year. The Alliance felt a more thorough environmental review of the facility and its operations was in order before the city moved to approve the use permit request. We hoped the city’s precautionary principle policy would play a role here, but it didn’t. 

Mr. Brenneman reported on the May 11 ZAB meeting in the May 16-18 Daily Planet but his reporting missed the major story relating to the PSC item, at least for us, which is “it’s not what you know but who you know that counts in the end.” When the Alliance arrived at the meeting, we had no idea what a circus it would ultimately become. PSC’s item was third on the agenda after continued hearings on the new Berkeley Bowl and the possible Trader Joe’s building at University and MLK Jr. Way. But the ZAB Board reordered the agenda so that shorter items could be heard first. The PSC project was not one of the projects moved ahead of the Berkeley Bowl hearing. Why, we are still not clear. The meeting began at 7:00 pm. By 1:00 am the ZAB was in its fourth hour on Berkeley Bowl. Alliance members were seated three rows up from Dion Aroner (former assemblywoman and former chief of staff to Tom Bates) whose PR firm, AJE Partners, was representing PSC. In the hallway, PSC management was huddled with five Bay Area Air Quality Management District (Air District) senior staff and Aroner’s partner Elizabeth Jewel. They had been plotting strategy together all evening. Dr. Nabil Al-Hadithy, the city’s toxics manager, was standing nearby. 

Our energy level was fading, but so was Ms. Aroner’s patience. She and Elizabeth Jewel summoned Calvin Fong, the mayor’s aide, who had been in the audience for some time, to inform him that “this is outrageous” and something had to be done. Thus began the interesting drama of Mr. Fong and the lead board staff person, Debbie Sanderson, making several back and forth trips from the meeting room to the hallway and back. Ms. Aroner and Ms. Jewel joined PSC management, Air District staff, and city staff for urgent discussions in the hallway. We, in the meantime, had begun asking Zoning Board staff about whether the PSC item would still be heard. Ms. Sanderson wasn’t clear because she said PSC really wanted to have their item heard that night. Now it was past 1:15 a.m. and staff told us that they would suggest to the board that the PSC item be heard at a special meeting on May 18. Meanwhile, ZAB was still grilling the consultants who prepared the traffic study for the new Berkeley Bowl.  

We were reconciling ourselves to coming back on the 18th because we believed that a new day would be preferable to a hearing on a complicated matter such as PSC at 1:30 a.m. before a ZAB that had just spent four hours listening to Berkeley Bowl public testimony and debating the merits of the traffic study. ZAB soon interrupted their Berkeley Bowl deliberations to vote on a motion to hear the PSC item on May 18. The motion passed and ZAB returned to the traffic study.  

Things got a little murky at this point. We were preparing to leave, but after another one of her visits to the people in the hallway, Ms. Sanderson suddenly asked to take a poll of those board members who would be attending the May 18 meeting. Two of the eight said that they couldn’t attend. Ms. Aroner had resumed her seat a few rows behind us, and I could hear her mutter “oh no, he needs to be there.” The shuttle diplomacy between staff and the people in the hallway continued. Mr. Fong approached us to say that PSC would in fact be heard after the Berkeley Bowl discussion had ended. We protested that it was now 1:30 a.m. and the board had already voted to reschedule the hearing to May 18. Our protests were in vain. Next thing we know the board decides to hear PSC next. We didn’t hear a formal motion or vote, but the decision was made. Dion Aroner and PSC would have their decision that night (er.. morning). And so it went, over our objections, the exhausted ZAB wrapped up some kind of vote or other on Berkeley Bowl and announced they were moving on to PSC.  

It was now past 1:30 a.m. and we all had been there since 7:00 p.m. The ZAB members were tired, we were exhausted and frustrated as now we had serious concerns about whether we would get a fair hearing at this late hour. The hearing began. Each of us was called to speak. We laid out our serious concerns about the project review and the late hour of the hearing. PSC gave a presentation. The ZAB asked a few questions of the Air District staff and PSC. The Air District and PSC refuted our concerns. After assuring us that they would revoke PSC’s use permit if the odor problems persisted (and I have a bridge to sell you…), the ZAB voted unanimously to approve the modification of the use permit.  

It was now about 2:15 a.m. PSC had what it wanted. Aroner, Jewel, and the PSC and Air District managers were happy. AJE had done what they had been hired to do. And the City of Berkeley and its residents were well served by the political process. Or were they?  

After the hearing we learned that Mayor Bates will now take a seat on the Air District Board representing Berkeley and Alameda County. What will this mean to resolving the long-standing issues relating to PSC’s pollution of our air? Considering his long association with Dion Aroner and his (and the city’s) lack of any substantive involvement in resolving the matter, we are very interested in what perspective Mayor Bates will bring to the issue representing Berkeley on the Air District board. City staff and politicians have long maintained that it’s the Air District and not Berkeley that has the real authority in overseeing PSC as a way of excusing the city’s lack of any significant effort on its own. Now Berkeley will have a voice on that board. We know that many people in West Berkeley will be watching to see just how the mayor uses his new position.  


Christopher Kroll, Janice Schroeder and Davis Schroeder are members of the West Berkeley Alliance for Clean Air and Safe Jobs.