Public Comment

Berkeley Needs to Protect its Air and its Children

By Maggie Riftik
Wednesday January 07, 2009 - 06:24:00 PM

In “Berkeley Schools Top Bad Air Quality List” (Dec. 17, 2008), Kristin McFarland writes that the air quality in Berkeley schools is among the worst in the nation, as reported recently by USA Today. As a Berkeley parent, I am deeply upset about this, especially given Berkeley’s reputation as one of the greenest cities in our country. I am particularly shocked at how long our local government has let Pacific Steel Casting (PSC) pollute our air. I would like to comment about a few items from Ms. McFarland’s article. 

Ms. McFarland notes that PSC released a Health Risk Assessment Report in 2007, whose findings imply that there are no health problems caused by PSC. Readers should know that these findings are based solely on modeled (i.e., invented) projections that were generated by a company PSC hired for the job. This means that 1) the report was heavily biased in favor of PSC, and 2) no real data was used to produce the findings. The most worrisome problem with the report, however, is that many local officials, including Mayor Tom Bates as recently as an October 2008 debate about PSC, cite it as proof that PSC is doing nothing wrong. Now that there is excellent, well-collected scientific data available, both from USA Today and from a recent study by Global Community Monitoring, the HRA has no place in discussions about Berkeley’s air quality. 

In her article, Ms. McFarland also refers to Elizabeth Jewel, the PSC representative and a partner at the public relations firm Aroner, Jewel and Ellis (AJE). Readers should be aware of the full extent of the relationship between PSC and Mayor Bates, via Ms. Jewel and others. Ms. Jewel served as one of Mayor Bates’ staff members, and Dion Aroner served as Bates’ chief of staff. Loni Hancock, Tom Bates’ wife and our current state senator, is one of AJE’s clients. It is possible that these connections between PSC and Mayor Bates amount to nothing, but given the lack of action taken to curtail PSC emissions and the lack of transparency permitted by Bates on PSC issues (e.g., holding closed-door meetings with PSC representatives), the associations begin to raise questions.  

Readers should also know that the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD), the nine-county body that regulates the emissions from PSC (and on whose board Mayor Bates serves), has fallen down on the job of protecting public health. This is evident to anyone who has tried to register odor complaints with them. Inspectors from the BAAQMD, whose credentials have not been disclosed to the public, arrive to follow-up on complaints often 60-90 minutes after the complaint was registered. By this time, the wind direction may have changed or the source of the odor may have discontinued. The inspectors smell the air to verify the complaint, and only if they smell the same odor described by the complainant will they classify the complaint as “confirmed” and therefore worthy of review. Otherwise, the complaint is considered unconfirmed and has no impact. The smell test is used despite the existence of readily available, handheld, inexpensive air-sampling kits, used by air boards in other states (e.g., Ohio) that inspectors could use to test the odors and identify pollutants. Furthermore, the inspectors are only available to the public during regular business hours on Monday through Friday, despite the fact that PSC now operates well into the night and on weekends. There is simply no reliable regulation of PSC’s emissions during these off-hours. Of course, the effect of all these hurdles raised by the BAAQMD is to make residents feel that their complaints are useless and too hard to register, so naturally they stop calling. Predictably, as the complaint process has become increasingly difficult, the number of odor complaints has gone down, as Mayor Bates often notes when speaking publicly about PSC. 

As the issue of our city’s bad air heats up in the coming months, Berkeley residents should expect the findings from the USA Today article to be criticized and minimized by PSC representatives and local officials. One major way they have done this in the past is to suggest that Interstate 80 is the real culprit behind the air pollution. By this logic, any city that borders a highway should have similarly poor air quality and similarly high levels of manganese and other toxins. Of course, we know from the data that this is simply not true. It would be easy to do the basic math on this and identify hundreds of cities with even more highway frontage than Berkeley with much better air quality. Furthermore, we know that PSC is at fault here: according to their own mandatory disclosure records, PSC is responsible for 99-100 percent of all manganese and nickel emissions in the area, and is also the largest (and sole) industrial releaser of many other toxic chemicals. Manganese and other toxins released by PSC have serious, long-term effects on the health of our children, including asthma, cancer, birth defects, lung and kidney problems, and IQ deficiencies. PSC’s emissions of these toxins routinely exceed EPA levels, as uncovered by Global Community Monitoring. 

I urge parents and other concerned citizens to take action on this issue by writing to the mayor and City Council members, particularly Linda Maio who is responsible for the area that includes PSC, and demanding that they protect our air and our children. These officials have the power to stop the air pollution by getting Berkeley’s Zoning Adjustments Board to revoke PSC’s permits. Parents can also attend the Feb. 12th Berkeley city council meeting, at which PSC will be discussed. Finally, parents are invited to attend the parents committee meetings of the Healthy Air Coalition, as noted in Ms. McFarland’s article. 


Maggie Liftik is a concerned Berkeley parent.