Community Questions Berkeley Mayor About Pacific Steel Agreement

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday July 17, 2008 - 09:44:00 AM

Almost five months after the Berkeley City Council voted unanimously to enter into an agreement with Pacific Steel Casting to cut emissions and odor within a specific timeline, community activists met with Mayor Tom Bates and Councilmember Linda Maio at the City Hall last week for their first update on the process. 

The council decided at the February meeting to give Pacific Steel a chance to address the community’s concerns. At that meeting several hundred angry Pacific Steel workers rallied to oppose Maio’s proposal to declare the West Berkeley-based foundry a “public nuisance” and refer it to the city’s Zoning Adjustments Board for odor abatement. They feared such moves might cost them their jobs. 

“It is amazing that it would take five months for the community to finally come to the table over this,” local activist L A Wood said. 

Bates informed the group that the foundry had upgraded two of its plants and said it was scheduled to release an odor- management plan in fall. 

“Between Jan. 1 and June 30, complaints have dropped 50 percent compared to the same period last year,” Bates said. 

The foundry has received 126 complaints related to odor this year, down from the 243 received within the same timeframe last year, he said. 

The citizen group pressed the mayor to establish a community-based odor task force to allow citizens to monitor Pacific Steel’s odors actively. 

Wood, one of the principal proponents of the idea, said the task force would be responsible for reviewing the history of the odor complaint protocols and inspection procedures of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District and developing an odor monitoring plan. 

Neighbors have complained about a burnt copper-like smell from Pacific Steel for more than 20 years.  

Some, like Rosie Evans, who was at Wednesday’s meeting, have filed a class action nuisance lawsuit against the foundry for negligence, trespass, public and private nuisance, intentional misrepresentation and unlawful business practices. 

“Pacific Steel is finding that when odor complaints come in, it relates to Plants 1 and 2,” Bates said. “It’s trying to seal some of the fugitive air. Inspection activities are being focused on Plant 1.” 

Elizabeth Jewel of Aroner, Jewel and Ellis, the public relations firm representing Pacific Steel, said three major improvements have taken place since the council meeting in February. 

“We have installed a new hood in Plant 3, which will route the emissions into the carbon filters more efficiently,” Jewel told the Planet. 

She added that the company was waiting for a permit from the air district to carry out major upgrades in Plant 1 in order to cut down fugitive emissions, including a new hood and new ducts in various locations throughout the plant. 

“We are looking for ways to also improve the efficiency of the ventilation systems in Plant 2,” she said. “Since Plant 3 has the newest carbon system, we are spending time on upgrading plants 1 and 2.” 

Pacific Steel spent about half a million dollars for improvements on plants 1 and 3 this year, Jewel said. 

Bates said the air district has completed its review of Pacific Steel’s Health Risk Assessment Report and has sent it back to the steel plant since it required several corrections. 

According to a letter from Brian Bateman, director of the air district’s engineering division, the district found the report to be “comprehensive and completed in accordance with established guidelines and approved protocols,” except in certain sections which have to be revised and turned in by Aug. 4. 

“What we haven’t been able to define is where the odors are coming from, specifically which plant and their chemical components,” Wood said. “We were looking for a public process to go forward with it. We want to go down and find the history and nail it down.” 

Denny Larson, director of Global Community Monitor, also requested the city to work with citizens to address neighborhood concerns.  

Larson’s organization will be holding a community meeting about Pacific Steel’s emissions on July 31, from 7-9 p.m., at the Berkeley Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church, 1400 Eighth St. 

Maio said she would ask the city’s health department to investigate emissions from Pacific Steel.