Air District Releases West Berkeley Air Monitoring Results

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Friday April 17, 2009 - 09:34:00 PM

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District this week released the results of the air monitoring it carried out near West Berkeley's Pacific Steel Casting last year. 

The study, carried out over a one-year period, says West Berkeley residents are not exposed to increased cancer or other health risks due to air quality. 

In an April 14 letter to Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, air district Executive Officer Jack Broadbent said the study found that, “for the year 2008, West Berkeley air quality met all of the applicable state and national ambient air-quality standards, with the exception of the 24-hour national PM2.5 standard and the very stringent annual state PM standards, similar to most other Bay Area locations.”  

The Environmental Protection Agency describes PM2.5 as fine particles unhealthy to breathe and associated with premature mortality and other serious health effects. 

Broadbent’s letter identified secondary ammonium nitrate and wood smoke as the primary causes of elevated PM2.5 levels in the Bay Area. He said secondary ammonium nitrate forms in the atmosphere and is primarily a result of nitrogen oxide emissions from “mobile sources and other types of fossil-fuel combustion.” Wood smoke emissions, Broadbent said, were being addressed through the air district’s recently adopted law regarding wood-burning devices. 

The analysis also shows air quality in West Berkeley to be well below all of the acute and chronic "reference exposure levels"—the “concentration at or below which no adverse non-cancer health effects are anticipated in the general human population”—established by the state E.P.A. Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. 

“I’m deeply relieved that the comprehensive study found that West Berkeley residents are not exposed to increased cancer or other health risks,” Bates said in a statement Friday afternoon. 

Calls to the mayor’s office for further comment were not returned by press time. 

Air district officials analyzed a year's worth of data from an air-monitoring station located at the Picante restaurant parking lot at Sixth and Camelia streets. The results were compared with statewide air-quality measurements. 

Several environmental groups and community members called the air district’s report misleading, explaining that it did not address their concerns in a comprehensive manner. 

“The air district needs a reality check and to improve their science,” said Andrew Galpern, a West Berkeley resident advocating for cleaner air. “They need to visit the neighborhood, test the air and the strange dust that settles on the homes downwind, and conduct a health survey to find out who's getting sick and how often. I’m glad Mayor Bates is ‘deeply relieved’ with the results. The problem is, he and his family don't live here....we do, and the air still stinks." 

Pear Michaels, a founding member of Mothers and Others for Measuring Metals in the Air, questioned the authenticity of the Picante monitor data. 

“The fact that it collects heavy metals once every sixth day on a schedule known in advance to Pacific Steel Casting is problematic,” she said. “Should they wish to limit their operations on that day, they may do so and effectively control the data.” 

Pacific Steel spokesperson Elisabeth Jewel said company officials did not know which days the data were collected. 

“Our production schedule is based on customer orders only,” she said. “We have no idea when they are doing it. It’s determined by air district staff members.” 

The analysis will be forwarded to the Alameda County Health Department and the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment for review and comment. 

Local environmental activists had asked the air district to place the monitor near Pacific Steel at Second and Gilman streets to investigate the steel plant's emissions. 

Area residents have complained for years about a burned copper-like smell from the foundry. Pacific Steel responded by installing odor absorption systems in its plants. 

A recent report by USA Today, which placed three West Berkeley schools in the top 1 percent nationwide for poor outdoor air quality, led to many community members pointing to Pacific Steel as the source of the problem. 

  “The bottom line is that the air quality meets federal and state standards,” Jewel said. “Singling out Pacific Steel as a contributor to unhealthy air at school sites is clearly wrong. If these are the results two blocks from the plant, then clearly Pacific Steel is not contributing to unhealthy air quality more than a mile from the plant at the school sites.” 

Jewel attributed noxious emissions to wood smoke and to diesel particulate from the freeway. 

“The air district’s analysis is grossly misleading, because it did not take into account the correlation of nickel and manganese with iron, as well as factors such as wind direction and weather condition,” said Denny Larson of Global Community Monitor. “At this point the public has lost total confidence in the air district’s approach to the problem.” 

The air district’s assessment of the data says that although the average concentration of manganese at the parking lot is higher than other monitoring sites, a fact the district attributes to its proximity to Pacific Steel, the levels were well below reference exposure levels adopted by the EPA. 

“Manganese levels are way under any level that could cause health effects, even among sensitive populations,” Jewel said. 

The air district also compared Pacific Steel’s Health Risk Assessment results for the Sixth and Camelia location with the monitoring results, finding them consistent. 

“If the Health Risk Assessment is correct and the pollution controls installed at Pacific Steel are 99.5 percent effective, then the community should not be smelling such strong, acute releases of emissions as they are,” Michaels said. “West Berkeley has one of the highest rates for childhood asthma and hospitalization in the nation. We need these serious issues publicized and addressed.” 

Broadbent said district staff were exploring the idea of continuing the monitoring at the Picante parking lot through 2009. 

“While the monitoring results are encouraging, air district staff will continue to explore opportunities to further reduce odorous and toxic pollutant emissions in the West Berkeley area by continuing our compliance and enforcement efforts and by working with Pacific Steel Casting and other facilities to identify potential emission reduction options,” Broadbent said.