Public Comment

Commentary: West Berkeley Air Quality: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

By L A Wood
Tuesday August 28, 2007

The lyrics “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows” have certainly been true in West Berkeley where foundry emissions and their noxious odors are a daily reminder of our local air quality crisis. Current levels of airborne chemicals and metal particulates have given zip code 94710 the shameful distinction of having some of the highest levels of asthma in the county.  

Although West Berkeley is located at the eastern edge of the San Francisco Bay, it has much poorer air quality than is found in larger California cities such as San Jose or even San Francisco. Despite numerous local advocacy groups, and even several lawsuits, this environmental outrage has only grown. The shocking truth is that today’s residents of the Oceanview district know little more about the health impacts from these industrial emissions than locals knew a quarter of a century ago.  

The deepening concern over these persistent toxic emissions has residents and workers in our community pointing blame at the area’s number one polluter, Pacific Steel Casting. Other citizens identify this problem with our inept regional air authority, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, and still others with the City of Berkeley’s failed zoning practices that have allowed housing and offices to be located in close proximity to the steel foundry.  

Although all these entities are culpable, it is clearly the air district that bears the most responsibility. For decades, BAAQMD has fostered a regulatory climate in West Berkeley of “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” and in doing so, has perpetuated an ongoing health quandary.  


Regulatory hot spot 

Modern-day air regulation came into existence more than 50 years ago as did our regional air district, BAAQMD. From the very beginning, the air district’s mandate has been mired in politics, allowing industrial polluters to “regulate” themselves, and as in Berkeley, to avoid any real public review or accountability.  

BAAQMD, like so many other regulatory agencies, has lost sight of its prime objective to protect the public’s health and instead has preferred to protect private industry from any substantial changes. Pacific Steel Casting, at Gilman and Second Street, is a prime example of the air district’s failure to regulate.  

Proof of this lies in the fact that over the past five years PSC’s production levels have increased enormously as have their airborne contaminants such as manganese, zinc, nickel, copper, cresols, phenol, benzene and formaldehyde. Yet, these emissions continue to be poorly monitored and inadequately contained. UCB’s School of Public Health calculates that in recent years, PSC’s toxic air emissions have risen 160 percent.  

Under growing public pressure, BAAQMD has only recently begun to acknowledge this issue surrounding PSC’s emissions. For those living and working near PSC, the air district’s response has come very late in the game. In answer to its critics, BAAQMD has now required PSC to update its 16-year-old Health Risk Assessment (HRA). One can only wonder why the district took so long to determine that a new assessment was needed for the foundry. Certainly, every regulatory definition of emissions “hot spot” should have triggered this health review years ago, especially given Pacific Steel’s expanded operations, new pollution sources, and increased emissions.  

Unfortunately, an updated HRA will never provide reliable answers to the many questions regarding adequate health protection of the community. The promised risk assessment, now months overdue, is tainted by the fact that it lacks any independent or impartial review. Paid for by the polluter, PSC, this “selective” investigation will only continue to justify the foundry’s polluting activities. Rarely do HRAs accomplish any more than this. 


The smoking gun 

Residents and workers, who have been left gasping for some regulatory relief, may now be finding this in the form of a community grant from BAAQMD. Perhaps to get some relief of its own from the public’s growing anger, the air district agreed several months ago to fund an air study centered on the foundry’s metal particulate emissions.  

The district’s grant of $25,000 was awarded to Global Community Monitoring (GCM), an international environmental justice group. Despite decades of complaints and health concerns about Pacific Steel’s emissions, the West Berkeley Community Monitoring Project provides the first systematic air sampling in Oceanview. 

Since May, a small team of volunteers, in conjunction with GCM, has climbed all over residential rooftops in West Berkeley, positioning portable air samplers downwind from PSC. The project has been sampling PM 10 particulate matter (10-micron diameter) for evidence of several metals common to PSC’s emission inventory.  

It certainly didn’t take a giant leap of logic to hypothesize that air sampling would reveal a hefty dispersion of metals from the foundry across the Oceanview area. Most who live in that district are all too familiar with the odor plumes that waft out more than a mile from the steel mill. The monitoring team now wants to know if the particulate metals travel like the odor plumes and at what concentrations. 

This unprecedented effort by GCM is now beginning to answer some of these questions and has produced some astonishing data. Although laboratory results are still preliminary, the nearly two-dozen samples processed so far have shown that concentrations of PSC’s metal contaminants were highest at locations closest to and downwind from PSC. Lower, but still excessive, levels of these contaminants have also been measured more than a half a mile from the stacks of PSC. It should be noted that the monitoring project has dispelled the long-held belief that the Highway 80 is the source of Oceanview’s airborne metal emissions. 

It is not surprising that manganese and nickel are showing up in high concentrations. According to the California Air Resource Board’s data, Pacific Steel Casting is the only significant industrial source of manganese in the Oceanview area. PSC also accounts for 99 percent of all industrial nickel emissions from the more than thirty West Berkeley industrial sources that come up on CARB’s radar. A health consultant for Berkeley’s community monitoring team, Mark Chernaik, Ph.D., has stated that the levels of manganese found in sample was 10 to 20 times higher than deemed safe by the World Health Organization. Nickel was found in a sample to be “up to 330 times the U.S. EPA reference concentration for this contaminant.”  

Early indications of the GCM monitoring project suggest that BAAQMD’s assumptions about the levels of PSC’s airborne metal particulates and the dispersion of these emissions may be grossly underestimated. Perhaps the GCM project will now shift public awareness from the foundry’s noxious odors to the potential dangers produced by PSC’s metal particulate emissions that cannot be detected by sight or smell.  

To find out more about the West Berkeley Community Monitoring Project, please attend a press conference being held at 11 a.m. today (Tuesday, Aug. 28) at 1340 Eighth St., which is one of the sampling locations. You will have an opportunity to view the air sampling equipment and speak with the monitoring team about the project and the lab results of the samples analyzed so far. The West Berkeley project is approximately halfway complete and is scheduled to run for several more months. Additional information can also be found at or at 


L A Wood hosts a website on Berkeley affairs at