Berkeley didn’t make the list of schools selected last week for outdoor air quality monitoring by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and a local environmental group isn’t happy about the omission.
Mothers and Others for Measuring Metals in the Air (MOMMA), a group of parents and concerned citizens, has been pushing for the testing of emissions near local schools ever since a USA Today story last December identified three Berkeley schools in the top 1 percent of the country’s most at-risk sites for exposure to harmful chemicals.
All three schools—Black Pine Circle School, Via Center and Nihaus School—are located close to Pacific Steel Casting in West Berkeley, which neighbors and environmental activists have singled out as the primary source behind the pollutants in the report.
Neighbors have complained for decades about a burned copper-like smell from the steel plant, citing it as the cause of respiratory and heart problems.
In response to the charges, Pacific Steel officials said the company should not be singled out for the problems, given the schools’ proximity to a large freeway and other industries.
Concerned citizens and parents of students who attend the Berkeley schools named in the USA Today report organized public meetings, created mailing lists and pressured the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for more information and air-quality testing.
In a March 31 e-mail to the Berkeley community, EPA officials said recent media reports questioning air quality surrounding schools near large industrial facilities had prompted them “to swiftly investigate and monitor the air for specific chemicals at selected schools across the nation.”
The agency announced that it had selected 62 schools in 22 states for the monitoring—the first program of its kind—but that Berkeley schools had not been included.
Of the four California schools to be selected, the only Bay Area school that made the list was Stevens Creek Elementary School in Cupertino, which will be tested for the carcinogen Hexavalent Chromium.
MOMMA co-founder Pear Michaels said she was disappointed that Berkeley schools did not make the list.
“We are all so angry,” she said. “There are so many children living in West Berkeley, going to school there—and yet it’s an issue that hasn’t been taken seriously.”
Michaels, who lives within a mile of Pacific Steel, said that her 3-year-old daughter developed respiratory problems a year after they moved to the neighborhood.
“We find EPA’s decision very confusing,” she said, adding that MOMMA was circulating a petition seeking immediate testing of the air near Pacific Steel for manganese, nickel, chromium and other heavy metals. “I don’t understand why they can’t go and place an air monitor near these schools. This issue is not going to go away just because the city and the air district want it to. We are going to take it to the state level—all the way to Sen. Barbara Boxer’s office if we have to.”
Maggi Liftik, another MOMMA member, said she was frustrated by the news.
“A lot of parents had been hopeful that Berkeley schools would be on the list because some of them tested so poorly in the original USA Today study,” she said. “Some of the schools had even been contacted, and that really got their hopes up. But the regulatory agencies have dropped the ball on what should be tested. We want some real answers to what our children are breathing.”
Mike Bandrowski, chief of the Air Toxics, Radiation, and Indoor Air Office for EPA Region 9, said the schools had been selected based on USA Today’s results, EPA’s screening analyses using the National Air Toxics Assessment, and previous monitoring conducted by state, tribal, and local air pollution control agencies.
Bandrowski said that although the EPA had considered the “strong response” from Berkeley residents advocating air monitoring around Pacific Steel, Berkeley schools had not been included for several reasons.
The EPA’s initial screening analysis, he said, did not place Berkeley’s air toxics levels among the highest levels nationally, even considering their proximity to a major freeway. The EPA will spend more than $2 million to sample air quality, focusing on schools near large industries and urban areas, where toxic emissions come from a mix of large and small industries, cars, trucks and other sources. Bandrowski said the sampling would take into account mobile air sources, which the USA Today study did not consider.
“When we did our own assessment, Berkeley schools didn’t show up high on the list,” he said, explaining that the agency was only looking at the top 62 schools identified through the screening. “However, the EPA is still aware of the issues surrounding Pacific Steel Casting and we are working with the community to resolve them.”
Another factor, Bandrowski said, was ongoing monitoring and health studies that were being done to identify toxic emissions from Pacific Steel Casting.
He referred to an October 2008 health risk assessment released under California’s Hotspots Information and Assessment Act, which did not predict significant air toxics impacts at nearby schools.
Bandrowski also pointed to an air toxics monitoring system set up by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District at Sixth and Camelia streets in Berkeley, which is located within 1,000 feet of the source.
“So there is already comprehensive monitoring in place,” he said. “The information the EPA would have got out from the short, 60-day air monitoring at the schools would have been less information than what the community is already getting.”
“We may decide to do a second round of testing in the future,” Bandrowski said. “But we don’t know for certain if that’s going to happen.”