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Berkeley Schools Top Bad Air Quality List

By Kristin McFarland
Wednesday December 17, 2008 - 07:13:00 PM

Last week’s USA Today report that placed three Berkeley schools in the first percentile of schools with bad air quality has activists, community members and school directors in an uproar. 

The report studied industrial pollution outside 127,800 nationwide schools for eight months. Thirty-nine Berkeley schools made the list, all within the worst 55 percent. The Black Pine Circle School, the Via Center and the Nia House Learning Center, all located in West Berkeley, were in the first percentile, meaning that the air outside the schools is worse at only 377 other schools around the country. Berkeley High fell in the eighth percentile, with worse air at only 9,722 schools.  

Since the article’s publication, the issue has received wide media coverage with all involved parties pointing fingers at probable causes. For many, it’s one more example of the health hazards caused by Pacific Steel Casting Company; for some, it’s a sign that the Berkeley government should take a more active role in improving its own environment. 

“The city needs to aggressively enforce regulations that Pacific Steel is ignoring on a daily basis,” said Denny Larson, executive director of the Global Community Monitor, an El Cerrito–based nonprofit that works to empower industrial communities toward a healthier, sustainable future. “This should put the ball back in the City of Berkeley’s home court to enforce its own policies in regard to this.” 

Elisabeth Jewel, Pacific Steel’s representative and a partner at the Aroner, Jewel and Ellis firm in Berkeley, had not returned telephone re-quests for an interview by press time. 

Pacific Steel itself released a Health Risk Assessment Report (HRAR) in 2007 at the request of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. According to the report, “The results of this HRAR indicate that cancer risks and non-cancer hazard indices estimated for individuals … who reside or attend day care or school in areas surrounding the Facility … do not exceed the Notification Levels established by the District.” 

In other words, no matter what independent reports say, state agencies have approved the air quality in West Berkeley. 

But there are inconsistencies in the study and in government air-quality monitoring that some say suggest a larger issue: Why haven’t we been paying more attention to the environment of our schools all along? 

According to Larson, the USA Today study was more comprehensive than any study to date because it included levels of manganese and other metals. The study, he said, was not conducted by “people running around with test kits,” as Pacific Steel representatives have suggested to other publications, but with science approved by the air-monitoring district.  

However, Larson also said that the study’s results are limited because it monitored the air quality for only eight months of the year; with a longer study, more schools might have made the list because of changes in the prevailing winds. 

The study has other, more apparent flaws, critics say. For example, schools within blocks of one another have differences of five percentage points between them, without any explanation of how the air quality could differ so vastly over such a short distance. Some of the schools are much closer to I-80 than others, and the study does not appear to differentiate between industrial contaminants and traffic contaminants. 

California Sen. Barbara Boxer, chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, has called for government action in monitoring the air quality at schools. 

“Expect this not to die down,” Larson of the Global Community Monitor said. Larson suggests that residents should write to the mayor, City Council or Senator Boxer. 

The Healthy Air Coalition of Berkeley and concerned parents meet on the third Thursday of every month from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church, 1400 Eighth St. The group aims to hold a summit in mid-January about the air quality of local schools.