The Berkeley City Council will decide whether the odors from Pacific Steel Casting should be considered a nuisance during a meeting at the Old City Hall, 2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, today (Tuesday).
If so, it will refer the matter to the Zoning Adjustments Board for nuisance abatement.
Last week, Pacific Steel workers rallied in front of the West Berkeley-based steel plant, denouncing what they said were efforts by the council to push them out of the city.
More than 100 workers belonging to the GMP Local 164B took Wednesday off from work to protest councilmember Linda Maio’s request to the council to label odors from the plant a nuisance.
The group contended that if the city mandates conditions on the plant’s current permit, it might force the company to shut its Second Street site. Pacific Steel laid off 60 workers, about 9 percent of its workforce, on Friday, claiming that clients were canceling orders due to the uncertainty of the company’s future.
“Councilmember Linda Maio made a mistake by not dealing with Pacific Steel directly before she put the item on the agenda,” Ignacio de la Fuente, president of the GMP Local 164B and president of the Oakland City Council, told the Planet Friday. “The plant’s customers started reacting after she put the item on the agenda to declare it a public nuisance. They said they couldn’t trust the company to deliver their products anymore ... We lost 60 workers today. We are concerned about the loss of jobs we are going to suffer ... We are concerned that the city of Berkeley is even talking about any kind of a condition. This company pays more than a million dollars in taxes to the city. If you lower the hours and say you cannot cater to customers, then it will result in layoffs.”
Maio said she was only interested in Pacific Steel’s outlining a definite plan and timeline to reduce odors.
“The fact of the matter is the city has been on the sidelines while the air district acts with Pacific Steel,” she said. “I put it on the agenda so that the city can have some authority, a way of asserting itself. The definite evidence of continuous odor concerns even after installing a carbon absorption system in Plant 3 shows that not enough is being done.”
Pacific Steel submitted an odor control plan to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District in November that has yet to be approved.
“We all know we don’t want to shut the plant down and drive the workers to China,” Maio said. “They are worried about jobs and we are worried about odors. We need to find a middle ground.”
“I am not saying everything is beautiful and great,” De la Fuente said. “But there are ways to improve the environment and reduce emissions. But you can’t do it by endangering the workers.”
Odor complaints from residents resulted in the air district’s independent hearing board enforcing an unconditional odor abatement order on Pacific Steel in 1985. In 1999, the air district removed the abatement.
“There were very few complaints about odor between 1985 and 1999,” said Karen Schkolnick, air district spokesperson. “PSC appealed to the hearing board for the order to be lifted, and since there was a better inspection record, it was. Since then the air district has continued to inspect and enforce odor nuisance complaints.”
The air district has also sued Pacific Steel twice through the larger court system to address violations.
“In the last seven years, Pacific Steel has increased its productions, emissions and odor,” said LA Wood, who tested air samples taken near the foundry as part of the West Berkeley Community Monitoring Project last year.
According to the community air test results, high levels of manganese and nickel were found at the Duck’s Nest preschool site, located a block away from the foundry.
Elizabeth Jewel, of Aroner, Jewel & Ellis Partners, the public relations firm representing Pacific Steel, told the Planet that it was impossible to tie the outcome of the test to one particular source.
The project, funded by the Bay Area Air Quality Monitoring District, used a calibrated pump for more than six months to gather particles on filters which were tested for heavy metal pollutants such as lead, manganese, nickel and zinc by a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approved laboratory.
“We will be requesting a dedicated council meeting on the air monitoring and other concerns regarding Pacific Steel,” Wood said. “We will also ask the city to request further air district funding to continue our efforts for air monitoring West Berkeley.”
Bradley Angel, executive director of Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, told the Planet that the test results indicated a threat to public health from Pacific Steel’s toxic emissions.
“High levels of toxic metals were found in the air even after the date that Pacific Steel supposedly installed pollution control equipment,” he said in an e-mail. “This shows that Pacific Steel must do much more to reduce and prevent pollution.”