An Alameda County Superior Court judge awarded thousands of dollars in damages to a group of West Berkeley neighbors Friday who sued Pacific Steel Casting for loss of use and enjoyment of their property and mental distress.
Judge Dawn Girard ruled that nine of the 19 plaintiffs who filed the small claims case in August 2006 would each get between $2,100 and $5,100 because of the “private nuisance created by Pacific Steel,” and “a real and appreciable invasion of the plaintiffs’ interests.”
No judgment was awarded in any of the children’s cases. Girard dismissed five other adult cases for lack of appropriate paperwork.
Elizabeth Jewel of Aroner, Jewel and Ellis, the public relations firm for Pacific Steel, told the Planet that the Gilman Street foundry was disappointed by the rulings and would appeal it.
Lead Plaintiff Tom McGuire called the judgment “a victory for the small guys.”
“It’s not about the money,” he said. “It’s a moral victory because we were able to stand up to the company that has been polluting with impunity and thumbing the community for decades. It’s like giving them a black eye. Let them appeal if they want to. They can spend more money and drag it through court.”
Most of the plaintiffs complained of a burnt-copper-like smell which some said could be toxic.
“This is a history that runs very long,” said Brant Bellamon, who rents an apartment close to the foundry. “They operate out of three plants now ... The molten metal goes airborne from Plant 3. I can smell it from my apartment every day. It’s one of the worst particulate matters. I am pleased with the judgment but it’s not over yet. We have won the battle but not the war.”
The steel foundry recently settled a lawsuit with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District and installed a $2 million carbon absorption unit on Plant 3 to reduce emissions and odor.
It also settled a lawsuit with Communities for a Better Environment which requires it to install an air filtration system.
Since the nuisance lawsuit was filed in small claims court, the parties were not allowed to be represented by lawyers. Attorney Kathleen Aberegg from Neighborhood Solutions advised them on the case.
“I was responsible for the opening and closing statements,” said McGraw. “Each of us had to go before the judge and represent our own case.”
Pacific Steel was represented by Barry Scott, the company’s human resource manager.
According to McGuire, the judge awarded homeowners in the West Berkeley neighborhood a larger amount than the renters. “She gave all the homeowners $5,100 each with one exception. The renters received $3,600 each.”
McGuire rented a house in West Berkeley in 2004 but moved to a different neighborhood seven months later.
“My wife and I lived in the line of fire of the factory,” he told the Planet.
“The minute we moved in, we knew something was wrong. Although I live in the North Berkeley Hills now, I can still smell the burning metal on my way to work. When we heard about this lawsuit, we decided to join on principle.”
Air monitors set up by a group of West Berkeley residents in May to detect emissions from Pacific Steel Casting reveal high levels of the toxic metals nickel and manganese.
According to Mark Cherniak, an independent international health expert, the levels of nickel and manganese found in the samples taken near the West Berkeley steel foundry were hundreds of times higher than considered safe by the World Health Organization.
The Bay Area Air Quality Management District released Pacific Steel’s long-awaited health risk assessment report to the public in October and will be accepting comments until Jan. 31.