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Pacific Steel Health Hearing Packs Center

By Richard Brenneman
Friday January 11, 2008
Pacific Steel Casting General Manager Joe Emmerichs defended the company against charges the foundry was polluting West Berkeley with toxins.
            photo by Richard Brenneman
Pacific Steel Casting General Manager Joe Emmerichs defended the company against charges the foundry was polluting West Berkeley with toxins. photo by Richard Brenneman

Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates and City Councilmember Linda Maio vowed Wednesday night to reopen Pacific Steel Casting’s use permit to force action on odors emanating from the company’s West Berkeley plant. 

Their promises came during a public hearing on a Health Risk Assessment report prepared by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (AQMD) and the state Office of Environ-mental Health Hazard Asses-sment. 

Wednesday night’s hearing provided the public a chance to register their views before the public comment period ends Jan. 31. And comment they did, to the standing-room-only crowd packing the West Berkeley Senior Center. 

The ongoing controversy over the steel plant pits a union shop and a source of good-paying jobs in the city’s ailing industrial area against neighbors and environmental activists who fear the plant’s emissions may be the cause of cancers and other ailments. 

The meeting came a day after the AQMD announced it would be spending $750,000 over the next year-and-a-half to operate a mobile air-monitoring facility near the foundry. 

The battle over odors from the plant and worries about toxic contaminants have sparked protest meetings and lawsuits. The air-monitoring announcement comes less than two months after a small-claims court victory by neighbors who had sued because of the odors. 

Alameda County Superior Court Judge Dawn Girard awarded nine plaintiffs 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.” 

Another suit, filed by the AQMD and settled two years earlier, forced installation of a $3 million carbon air-filtration system atop one of the company’s three West Berkeley plants. 

It was the air board which mandated the Health Risk Assessment, which was prepared by Environ, an Emeryville consulting firm, at Pacific Steel’s expense. 

While officials from both state agencies said the study met their requirements, it didn’t satisfy critics who have been fighting for stricter controls on emissions from the facility. 


Risk levels 

Two state officials and Environ consul-tant Richard Daugherty contended that none of their findings showed any level of emissions that mandate remedial action. 

One set of data focused on health risks from cancer-causing chemicals, while a second focused on non-cancer risks, looking at both nearby residents and employees of nearby businesses. 

For carcinogens, state law requires community notification when risks rise to 10 cases per million, and mandatory reductions of emissions when levels rise to 100 per million or more. 

Daugherty said residential risks of cancer in the manufacturing zone reached 19 per million, dropping to less than 10 for the nearby residential neighborhood. 

Risks for workers at nearby businesses and plants were highest for those who worked the midnight to 8 a.m. shift (31 per million), dropping to 23 per million for the other two shifts. 

Residential exposure rates are based on a 70-year exposure, while the average time spent in any given residence is nine years, Daugherty said. Workplace exposures are based on a 40-year job tenure. 

Daugherty said non-cancer risks of acute or chronic health problems all fell below notification levels for residences, while some workers had risks slightly above one per million from chronic health problems, but less than one in a million for acute problems. 

Survey data did not include employees of Pacific Steel Casting itself. 


Odor concerns 

For Linda Maio, who with colleague Darryl Moore represents West Berkeley on the City Council, “the odor problem is very serious.” She said, “The odor problem was so serious it made me nauseous” as she was riding her bicycle near the North Berkeley BART station last week. 

Faulting a process she described as too slow, Maio said, “We want action now. We want it right away. We will give them a deadline, but it has to be in line with their use permit.” 

Such permits, which govern what can and can’t be done on a real estate parcel, are defined according to city zoning and other requirements and are subject to approval and modification by the Zoning Adjustments Board and can be appealed to the City Council.  

Maio urged her constituents to let her know any time they complained to the AQMD about conditions at Pacific Steel so she would have the ammunition to follow up on their concerns. 

“The odor issue is their Achilles heel,” said Mayor Bates. “It puts their use permit into jeopardy.” 

Odor, he said, is “the clearest problem,” and the city wants a plan to reduce odor. “We want action on it, and we want it now,” he said. 

But as for the deeper community concerns about health risks and their assessment, Bates said, “In all candor and in all honesty,” they “are very difficult to prove.” 

Darryl Moore was present for the meeting but did not offer a comment. 


Concrete critique 

More concrete official concerns came from Nabil Al-Hadithy, the city’s hazardous materials manager. 

With funding from Pacific Steel Casting, the city hired another consulting company, TetraTech EMI, to review the Health Risk Assessment, giving rise to a range of concerns, Al-Hadithy said. 

Two principal concerns focus on emissions of the metal manganese and the presence of air particulates from diesel fuel, generated by trucks and other uses at the plants. 

The assessment program doesn’t look at the fuel particulates, which produce a much greater degree of risk along freeways. 

Recent research has shown that manganese, a metal found in plant emissions, is 10 times more potent a nerve toxin than previously believed, and while levels still didn’t rise to actionable levels, they should be noticed to the community. 

A prepared review of the assessment by TetraTech faulted the document for maintaining that adverse effects didn’t occur before the levels for notification required by the AQMD. 

The report also didn’t include a table reporting the values used to establishing toxicity of materials covered in the report, 

Other potential flaws included the failure to provide testing data that covered different seasons, since the Environ site visit occurred when the plant was operating on its winter schedule. 

Another weakness cited was a failure to consider cumulative risks when Pacific Steel emissions were combined with those from other facilities, like the adjacent Berkeley Forge and Steel. 

The report also failed to note that there is no safe level for lead exposure, “which has impacts at any level.” 


Public worries 

But odor, while a concern to neighbors and activists, paled in comparison to their worries about toxins, especially those linked to cancer. 

Andrew Galperin joined in Al-Hadithy’s critique of manganese levels, noting that the levels reported from the plant were 20 to 30 times those recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO), with nickel levels at 200 times WHO maximums. 

He also criticized the study for failing to consider the impacts on people who had lived in the neighborhood for 20 or 30 years before the recently installed filtration equipment was in place. 

L.A. Wood called the assessment a sham, and called for hair and blood analysis from the Duck’s Nest child care center, which is located close to the foundry. 

Monitoring data collected by community members indicates more problems at the site than the assessment, he said. 

Janice Schroeder of the West Berkeley Alliance for Clean Air and Safe Jobs said the study only looked for a limited range of chemicals and didn’t look at how activities at the plant may have changed over the years. 

She also said the report failed to consider impacts on plant workers who also live in the community. 

Several speakers said they worried about exposures to children who grow up in the area, and to families who eat fruit and vegetables grown in their yards. 

Schroeder and others also singled out the assessment’s failure to look at the impact of particulates. 

Peter Guerrero, who participated in the community monitoring program, said he had worked as a federal environmental regulator for 20 years before he moved to Berkeley. 

“In my opinion, the risk assessment is a tool with serious difficulties,” he said, “is easy to manipulate” and filled with questionable assumptions. 

“We will hold your feet to the fire if we need to,” said Steve Ingraham. 

“A fraud is being perpetrated here by the air district,” said Bradley Angel of Green Action for Health and Environmental Justice. 

A particularly sharp critique came from Amy Dunn, an employee of the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, one of the sponsoring agencies of the study. 

A 15-year community resident, Dunn called the study “a limited tool” that “leaves out works, that leaves out odors.” 

“We need to figure out a different tool to protect our community,” she said. 

Another insider critique came from Toni Stein, a state employee who has served on the AQMD’s hearing board. 

“I find it perplexing that the city can’t get an agreement to get the complaints sent to them,” she said, referring to complaints filed with the agency about the West Berkeley foundry. 

City efforts to receive copies of the complaints have been stalled since 1998, she said. 

Officials promised they’d look into a way to providing them, though their current computer system doesn’t provide a way to retrieve them. 


Steel defenders 

While voices in favor of the plant were few, Pacific Steel Vice President and General Manager Joe Emmerichs concluded the meeting with a ringing defense of his company. 

“I’ve lived in Berkeley 45 years,” starting with the firm in 1969 and serving “in every position” at the plant, he said. “We don’t have any problem of anyone getting sick. We have not had any employees get sick—ever.” 

The company has a 94 percent retention rate for its 670 employees, “the highest in the industry,” Emmerichs said, and “one of the best safety records in the country.” 

Pacific Steel Casting operates “one of the cleanest foundries in the country ... in the world,” he said, “and 13 European foundries have come to Berkeley to see how we do it.” 

“We employ over 30 different nationalities, and we’re proud of it. We employ a lot of women and we’re proud of it,” Emmerichs added. 

When he finished, a sizable contingent of Pacific Steel Casting employees in the audience—some wearing hard hats, some baseball caps with the company logo—burst into applause.