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Pacific Steel Releases Health Assessment, Citizens Say Process Flawed

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Tuesday July 31, 2007

After more than a year of delays, Pacific Steel Casting released its Health Risk Assessment report to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District last week.  

The report—which is yet to be released to the public—is intended to help determine whether the country’s third largest steel foundry poses a health risk to Berkeley residents, as neighbors of the Second Street plant have long maintained. 

“It will go through a series of reviews,” said Elisabeth Jewel, of Aroner, Jewel & Ellis Partners, the public relations firm representing Pacific Steel. “It could even be changed. But it’s important information for the neighbors that may help them better understand what kind of impact Pacific Steel has on the community.” 

The neighbors, however, aren’t so sure. Most called the process of how the report was put together “deeply flawed.” 

Although the air district initially told community members in an e-mail that the HRA would be made public by the end of July, agency spokesperson Karen Schkolnick told the Planet Monday that air district engineers were currently doing a preliminary review of the report. 

“We just received it on July 23,” Schkolnick said. “Once we complete our preliminary review of the emissions impact and modeling data, we will send it to the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. After completing the preliminary review, we will provide a 90-day public review period.” 

Schkolnick added that feedback from the public, the city and the air district engineers would be incorporated into the approval process for the report. 

“We fully expect the so-called Health Risk Assessment to be a whitewash of the ongoing problems and ongoing threat to public health from Pacific Steel's pollution,” said Bradley Angel, executive director of Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice. “Residents continue to complain of noxious odors and there is a disturbing pattern of cancer in the surrounding community that is coming to light. The fight to stop PSC's pollution problem will continue.” 

Based in the predominantly industrial neighborhood of West Berkeley, Pacific Steel has been the target of public outcry claiming that the steel mill pollutes the environment and contributes to asthma and respiratory diseases. 

Although Pacific Steel installed a carbon adsorption system at Plant 3 in October, odor complaints continue to be made by community members to the Air District. 

According to the California Environmental Protection Agency, risk assessments are geared toward helping scientists and regulators “determine serious health hazards and set realistic goals for reducing exposure to toxins so that there is no significant health threat to the public.” 

West Berkeley Alliance for Clean Air and Safe Jobs volunteer Janice Schroeder said she was concerned that Pacific Steel Casting’s report may do little more than provide “risk number mumbo-jumbo” without compelling cleanup.  

In an e-mail to the Planet, Schroeder said that the Alliance wanted Pacific Steel to implement a Toxic Use Reduction program. 

“The Toxic Use Reduction program requires the industry to become fully transparent and accountable to the community, to use the best housekeeping practices in all operations, and to modernize the facility,” said Schroeder.  

“It’s time for cleanup, not just guesstimates.” 

According to Dr. Michael Wilson of UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health, the Health Risk Assessment is not an effective tool whereas Toxic Use Reduction has been proved to be much more promising. 

Jewel maintains that PSC has complied with the law. 

“This is the tool they have through state law to gain information,” she said. “It’s through the California EPA, which is a much higher standard then the USEPA. The kind of information that is provided to neighbors is more through CEPA than federal law.” 

Environmental groups continue to call the model flawed. 

“There is so much that goes into the report that’s heavily biased that it can never be taken seriously,” said Martin Bourque of the Ecology Center. “The results are biased to make it seem that there is no health risk ... Their assumption is that it’s okay for one person in a million to get cancer. We don’t think it’s okay. The results are not going to convince members of the affected public in any way.” 

Philip Huang, attorney for the non-profit Communities for Better Environment, said that a toxic use reduction program was a more comprehensive and health-protective method than the HRA. 

“We welcome the HRA,” he said. “At the same time the state legislature is considering a bill called the Toxic Use Reduction Act which requires industries to examine their industrial processes and determine how they can reduce the risk of toxic chemicals.” 

Bourque added that the fact that the HRA was being paid for by Pacific Steel was another reason not to rely on it. 

“Even though the consultants are a third party, they know where their pay checks are coming from,” he said. “I doubt that the HRA will produce any significant negative results and PSC will just turn around and say ‘we told you so.’”