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Watchdog Group Sues Air District

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday April 16, 2009 - 07:12:00 PM

A Berkeley-based environmental group is suing the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, alleging that the agency violated the California Public Records Act by denying access to Pacific Steel Casting’s Odor Control Plan.  

The lawsuit, filed in the San Francisco Superior Court on April 6 by the Healthy Air Coalition, seeks to “compel the Bay Area Air Quality Manage-ment District to disclose specific public records, and to void unlawful ‘guidelines’ adopted by the air district that delay, interfere with, and prevent prompt release of certain records, all brought under the Public Records Act.”  

Environmental activists, community organizers and Berkeley chave for years pressured the air district to ask Pacific Steel—located at Second and Gilman streets—to control what they say are odors and toxic emissions harmful to human health.  

The issue received national attention in December when USA Today ran a report that identified three West Berkeley schools in the top 1 percent of educational institutions in the country with poor outdoor air quality. 

Although some community members charged that Pacific Steel was responsible for the problem, the foundry responded by saying that it was unfair to point the blame in one direction. 

Carole Marasovic, a spokesperson for the Healthy Air Coalition, said she hoped the lawsuit would force BAAQMD to release the Odor Control Plan to the community. Pacific Steel submitted the plan to the air district in October 2008 after being cited for multiple air-quality violations.  

The Oakland-based First Amendment Project, the coalition’s lawyers, claim that BAAQMD denied all requests by the Healthy Air Coalition, private citizens and governmental agencies for a copy of the Odor Management Plan, on the grounds that it contained trade secrets, and that BAAQMD instead invited Pacific Steel to file a lawsuit against BAAQMD to prevent release of any part of the plan.  

BAAQMD Director of Communications Lisa Fasano said the plan the air district had received from Pacific Steel had “trade secrets” marked on it. When trade secrets are identified as such, Fasano said, the air district goes back to the company and informs it that it has a certain amount of time to respond about whether the company would like to release the information to the public. If the company fails to respond within the given time frame, the air district can go ahead and release the information.  

In this particular case, Fasano said, Pacific Steel declined to make the information public.  

“We told that to the Healthy Air Coalition,” Fasano said.  

Fasano added that BAAQMD was also being sued by Pacific Steel Casting to prevent the air district from releasing the Odor Control Plan.  

“It’s now in the hands of the court to decide whether the information is a trade secret or not,” she said of Pacific Steel’s lawsuit. “The air district does not make that determination.”  

The Healthy Air Coalition contends that the community has a right to know about the steel foundry’s air emissions and its plans to control them. Coalition spokesperson Marasovic said BAAQMD’s “anti-consumer and corporate-biased guidelines,” under which they “invited Pacific Steel” to sue them to prevent releasing the report, was a violation of the Public Records Act.  

“They have shirked their responsibility,” she said. “BAAQMD was established to protect residents from unhealthy air quality. Yet it is BAAQMD who has made it difficult for the community to obtain information about these odors and emissions, information intended to be public under the California Public Records Act. It is BAAQMD that has forced us to challenge its guidelines to protect the rights of all citizens seeking public information regarding corporate polluters.”  

Fasano said she could not immediately comment on whether the air district had guidelines under which it had asked Pacific Steel to sue them.  

“I don’t have the answer to that question right now,” she told the Daily Planet. 

“I think the issue in the Healthy Air Coalition lawsuit is whether or not we can withhold the documents.”