Public Comment

Commentary: Pacific Steel Casting: At What Cost?

Tuesday June 20, 2006

The stacks of Pacific Steel Casting rise high above the northwest Berkeley skyline of Oceanview. Once surrounded by manufacturing and light industry, the foundry now finds itself constrained by residential neighborhoods and a growing retail presence. This move towards gentrification is on a collision course with PSC’s massive expansion of its operations. Indeed, Pacific Steel, which claims to be the third largest facility of its kind in the country, has been the city’s number one zoning conflict for over a dozen years.  

Despite huge increases in the steel mill’s production and the commensurate increase in odors, airborne chemicals and particulates over the last decade, Berkeley’s Zoning Adjustments Board has refused to move forward and demand an honest measurement of the health risks to residents. Since 1991, the board has allowed Pacific Steel to operate with an incomplete use permit, and has consistently avoided a review of the foundry’s operations.  

This has never been more evident than it was several weeks ago when PSC’s use permit for Facility No. 3 was placed on the board’s agenda. As has been its custom in years past, ZAB elected to open the public discussion of the steel company’s proposal in the wee hours of the morning while most of Berkeley slept.  

The late-night hearing concerned PSC’s request to install a two-million-dollar carbon adsorption system at Facility 3. As expected, the project’s approval by ZAB has met with community opposition. An appeal was filed which is now on the council agenda for this week. Of the ZAB members who managed to stay awake, it’s doubtful that any of them understood much about the proposed carbon system.  

In ZAB’s haste to streamline the foundry’s permit process, the board simply streamlined the public out. From a perspective of community health, Pacific Steel’s investment will provide very little by way of emissions control. ZAB’s approval not only has given the board’s blessing to PSC’s runaway expansion, but also license to pollute even more.  

Using carbon adsorption or filtration to control odors is certainly not a new idea. It has been employed in many commercial and industrial applications, but has seen extremely limited use by steel production companies other than Pacific Steel. Those who support the notion that the proposed carbon system will adequately abate all health concerns for nearby residents should reflect on the history of tobacco regulation and the lessons learned.  


Joe Camel and Pacific Steel 

Everyone remembers the public uproar a number of years ago concerning cigarette smoke and cancer. Back then, the tobacco industry refused to admit any adverse health impacts associated with cigarettes. Since then, science has come a long way in understanding the dangers of smoking. Equally important was the discovery that exposure to secondhand cigarette smoke is also extremely harmful. Similarly, there is a growing concern about PSC’s emissions and the severe harm that could result from long-term exposure.  

A city ordinance now prohibits cigarette smoking within 20 feet of commercial doorways. What should the safety zone be for nearby residents exposed to emissions from PSC’s stacks? Unfortunately, not enough is known about the company’s emissions to determine that at this time. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD), which regulates the foundry’s air discharge permits, brushes aside this and all other questions about public health while adamantly defending PSC’s emissions as safe.  

It is interesting to note that even the tobacco industry has employed carbon technology in some filtered cigarettes. Among other things, the filter was supposed to control unwanted odors, not unlike the proposed carbon adsorption system at PSC. The difference is that a huge amount of money was funneled into the researching tobacco consumption, but little is known about the true nature of PSC’s emissions or what the proposed carbon adsorption system can or can’t do. It isn’t for lack of opportunity. Carbon systems were installed at PSC’s No. 1 and No. 2 facilities in 1985 and 1991.  

Exhaustive investigations into the effects of cigarette smoking were conducted on laboratory animals. At Pacific Steel, it’s the residents who have been made the guinea pigs because of BAAQMD’s poor oversight and PSC’s missing health assessment.  

It should be remembered that the foundry’s carbon adsorption systems and stacks represent far more than just giant cigarettes. Unlike tobacco, the range of chemical emissions, high volume of particulates, and dispersion patterns make PSC’s emissions far more problematic for the surrounding community. And unlike cigarette smoking, living downwind from the foundry’s stink is not a choice for many residents.  


Public health first, then jobs 

The momentum to daylight public health concerns relating to PSC emissions has been 30 years in coming. The current efforts by BAAQMD to investigate the factory’s air discharges have been repeatedly criticized by the affected community as woefully inadequate. The air district’s failure to do so reflects its strong industry bias. BAAQMD has resisted all opportunities to understand PSC emissions and has allowed the foundry to lag behind normal regulatory science.  

An overt sign of these serious shortcomings can be seen in the recent intervention last month by the Golden Gate School Environmental Law and Justice Clinic as well as Communities for a Better Environment into the discussion. Working together, Golden Gate and CBE have noticed Pacific Steel of their intent to sue over violations of the Clean Air Act. This legal challenge questions whether PSC has violated its emissions limits and points to the company’s failure to correctly record its activities. Facility No. 3’s use permit, now before the City Council, is a central focus of this outside legal inquiry. 

Perhaps the most important issue highlighted by the lawsuit relates directly to the health assessment being constructed by BAAQMD. If PSC is shown to have exceeded its emissions limits, then how can the air district begin to accurately quantify the health risk to residents and avoid underestimating the adverse health impacts? 

The politics of tobacco and those that encompass Pacific Steel are remarkably similar. Like the tobacco industry, PSC’s $25-million payroll and its 600 plus union employees pack a big political wallop. Like tobacco interests, the steel company is driven by profits, so the political imperative for PSC has not been to invest in scientifically understanding community health risks, but in touting the number of jobs it provides in Berkeley. It should be noted that although PSC is a family-owned operation, most of its employees live outside Berkeley. 

Neighbors have also had to contend with an outside lobby that includes Oakland’s recent mayoral candidate, De La Fuente, who continues to exert his influence in resisting any review of the foundry. Because of heightened public awareness of its emission problems, Pacific Steel has hired both a PR firm and the services of Dion Aroner, an ex-assemblywoman turned paid-political consultant. Needless to say, the community has been no match for this professional team, which has been quite successful in running roughshod over the neighborhood and the regulatory process.  

Even Berkeley’s big-business mayor, Tom Bates, has joined the team and now sits on the air district’s board of directors. Was this move a direct reaction to the pending lawsuit against PSC or is it an attempt to appear more “green” for his upcoming re-election bid? In any case, the purpose of these backroom deals has not been to daylight Pacific Steel’s emissions, but to stabilize community insurgency. Bates’ presence at the air district will only ensure that the foundry is further shielded from public scrutiny. 

It’s time to set aside all the regulatory speculation and politics regarding PSC’s emissions once and for all. Verify, verify, verify! This can only be done with continuous stack and fence-line air monitoring of actual emissions levels. Permanent air monitoring should be made mandatory with the pending use permit. Compared to the two- million-dollar price tag of another carbon system, monitoring is a small enough investment given what’s at stake. Pacific Steel’s cost to operate should not be paid for with our community’s health.  


LA Wood is a long-standing Berkeley environmental watchdog.