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Citizens Turn Up the Heat On Pacific Steel Again

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Wednesday February 18, 2009 - 07:03:00 PM

Community members will take to the streets once again Saturday to protest what they called toxic emissions from the West Berkeley-based Pacific Steel Casting Company, following the publication of a report by USA Today last December which identified three Berkeley schools in the top 1 percent of the country’s most at-risk sites for exposure to dangerous toxic chemicals. 

Environmental activists and neighbors who have labeled Pacific Steel one of the four largest surviving steel foundries in the nation as the chief pollutant in West Berkeley for over two decades singled it out as the source behind the problem reported in the article. 

The allegations were promptly dismissed by Pacific Steel officials who argued that it was irresponsible to point all the blame in one direction, given the proximity of the steel plant to a major freeway and other industries. 

In a letter to city officials and the community, Jack Broadbent, executive officer of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, said the USA Today series was “misleading and false” since the EPA data used to research the story was not scientifically valid or verified in order to make risk-based assessments. 

The news about the bad air quality shocked many parents at Black Pine Circle School, Via Center and Nihaus School—the three Berkeley educational institutions listed in the first percentile—and other area schools, leading to a growing movement since then to address the issue. At a recent town hall meeting at Rosa Parks Elementary School, which is next to Black Pine but ranked in the nation’s sixth percentile, community members had a chance to discuss their concerns with representatives from the air district and environmental activists. 

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District approved Pacific Steel’s final health risk assessment on Nov. 24, 2008, which states that the maximum health risks are below levels that require mandatory risk reduction measures under the air district’s policies and procedures. 

Henry Hilken, the director of planning, rules and research for the air district, said at the meeting that the USA Today report had not portrayed the risks accurately. 

“I am not saying that Pacific Steel is a great neighbor but the USA Today article did a disservice to the community,” he said, adding that in the Bay Area, mobile sources were by far the largest polluter. “Cars and buses have far more pollutants than Pacific Steel, and diesel, in particular, is a carcinogen. Diesel exhaust from I-80 and University Avenue are more of a concern than stationary sources.” 

Hilken said that the air district had a van parked four blocks east of the steel plant monitoring gaseous pollutants over a year. The results will be available in the spring.  

USA Today posted a response Dec. 11 defending its report, saying after weeks of discussions with officials at the U.S. EPA and those who created the model, the newspaper called its assesment the “most current way to track industrial pollution around the nation.” 

USA Today also stated that it used the most up-to-date version of the model to analyze data from 2005, which “represents a snapshot in time of what pollution might have been like at these locations then.” 

It acknowledged that some companies have said that they have curbed emissions since then and that, as the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection correctly pointed out, its analysis “fails to take into account mobile sources that can greatly elevate health risks."  

Peter Guerrero, an environmental activist, told the public that the report raised important questions about pollutants from Pacific Steel and urged city officials to take action on the hundreds of complaints from area residents against emissions and odors from the plant.  

“We need a strategy for moving forward,” he said, calling for the formation of a good neighbor agreement. “The most important thing missing here is transparency.” 

Bradley Angel, executive director of Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, which is co-sponsoring the rally this weekend along with the Healthy Air Coalition, the Ecology Center and the West Berkeley Alliance for Clean Air and Safe Jobs among others, said that the USA Today article had spurred the community to organize against the ongoing pollution from Pacific Steel. 

“The air district did its usual action of backing up polluters, as they always do, acting like the public relations firm for Pacific Steel in rapidly attempting to discount the startling information reported in the USA Today story” he said. “But we believe the information in the article did show that kids in the community are at risk. We want to protest the total inaction by the City of Berkeley and the air district to take any steps at all to encourage or force Pacific Steel to reduce their pollution.” 

The protest rally and march to Pacific Steel, on Saturday, Feb. 21, will begin at 11 a.m. at 10th and Gilman, with the march at noon.