Group Takes Pacific Steel To Court Over Emissions

By Suzanne La Barre
Tuesday July 11, 2006

Pacific Steel Casting, the subject of noxious odor complaints in West Berkeley for more than two decades, is headed to court. 

Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), an Oakland-based environmental health and justice non-profit organization, filed a federal lawsuit against the steel foundry July 6. According to a notice of intent to sue released in May, the suit alleges that Pacific Steel is violating the Clean Air Act for exceeding emissions limits and failing to adequately report emissions. 

A staff attorney from the Environmental Law and Justice Clinic of the Golden Gate University School of Law, the firm representing CBE, confirmed the lawsuit Monday, though she did not offer further comment. 

Pacific Steel spokesperson Elisabeth Jewel, of Aroner, Jewel and Ellis Partners, said her client was not aware the suit was officially filed. “Pacific Steel has not seen the lawsuit and is refraining from comment,” she said. 

If found to have breached terms of the Clean Air Act, the federal law that sets limits on air pollution densities, Pacific Steel may owe as much as $37,500 per violation. At the time, it was unclear how many violations Pacific Steel would be responsible for. The senior attorney for CBE did not return a call for comment by press time.  

Residents of West Berkeley have complained about foul odors—which many liken to the stench of a “burning pot handle”—emanating from the plant for years.  

In December, the environmental regulatory agency, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD), reached a settlement agreement with Pacific Steel, requiring the plant to install a $2 million odor reduction system in addition to other odor-reducing measures. But some residents said it failed to address the gamut of Pacific Steel’s pollution problems.  

“The lawsuit is a necessity and it is the first step in daylighting the health impacts of Pacific Steel,” said L A Wood, who says his community watchdog group, Berkeley Citizen, is a plaintiff in the case. The West Berkeley Alliance for Clean Air and Safe Jobs, he says, is also represented.  

Wood is among several residents who believe the foundry emits toxins that are hazardous to human health. 

Pacific Steel was scheduled to complete a health risk assessment in June but has not yet done so, said Jack Colbourn, BAAQMD director of outreach and incentive. This is cause for great concern, he said.  

The air district is taking action against the steel foundry for failing to meet other terms of the settlement agreement. In the last three months, BAAQMD has issued three notices of violation: one for odor complaints, another for permit violations and a third for operating, installing or constructing equipment without the authority to do so, according to Susan Adams, an attorney for BAAQMD. 

Pacific Steel, comprised of three plants on Second Street in West Berkeley, is the third largest foundry of its kind in the country.