Zoning Board Takes on Pacific Steel

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday September 17, 2009 - 09:49:00 AM

The Berkeley Zoning Adjustments Board last week hinted that unless Pacific Steel Casting addressed community concerns about odor and emissions effectively, it could be in trouble. 

The West Berkeley steel foundry has been battling community activists, neighbors and government agencies for more than two decades over demands for cleaner air, something the company says it cannot be held solely responsible for given its proximity to a freeway, railroad and other heavy industries. 

The board met Sept. 10 at Old City Hall to review Pacific Steel Casting’s annual performance report, including current compliance levels and staffing changes, as part of a five-year condition on its odor abatement system permit. 

A weak economy and slow housing market have forced Pacific Steel to cut production by 10 percent annually and reduce its work force by 30 percent in recent months. Some, like Ignacio De la Fuente, an Oakland City Councilemember and vice president of the steel plant’s workers union, have also blamed the lagging production on community complaints, which he said forced the plant to spend millions on improvements. 

In 2004, when a drastic increase in steel production at Plant 3—located between Second and Third streets—led to a spike in complaints and violation notices from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District for exceeding emission standards and instituting public nuisance, Pacific Steel submitted an odor management plan to the Air District in Nov. 2005, proposing to install a carbon absorption unit, similar to those in plants 2 and 3. 

A month later, the company entered into a settlement agreement with the Air District, agreeing to pay thousands of dollars in penalties, submit an odor management plan and install a carbon absorption unit. 

The zoning board approved the construction of an odor management system in 2006, specifically the carbon absorption units, which, in keeping with the settlement agreement, would control odors “to the maximum extent feasible from Plant 3.” 

A condition on the use permit requires Pacific Steel to submit all notices of violation it receives from the Air District for the first five years. 

In 2008, the Air District issued two notices of violation to Pacific Steel between September and December, the first for allegedly “missing several days of recordkeeping” at a pouring-cooling operation and the second claiming that the foundry had created a public nuisance by allowing “detectable fleeting odors” in the environment for several hours. 

The City of Berkeley’s Planning Manager Deborah Sanderson said that the board had originally received the annual report on June 25 and had raised questions during a discussion, something at least one board member had trouble recollecting 

“I don’t specifically recall discussing it,” said commissioner Bob Allen. “But I don’t feel comfortable having the annual report in our packet and having no discussion scheduled, which to me is a tacit approval of what’s going on and I don’t think that’s the situation.” 

She said that the primary source of particulates in West Berkeley is from the railroad and I-80 traffic as well as traffic along San Pablo and University avenues, the city’s major transit arteries. 

Sanderson said that the board could open nuisance proceedings if it determined that the odor abatement system had not led to any improvements. 

If the board found that Pacific Steel had violated its use permit for the carbon absorption unit, they also had the power to revoke the permit, Sanderson said. 

Sanderson said there was no evidence so far that Pacific Steel had violated the use permit. “It [the odor] is not completely gone, but the problem has reduced significantly,” she said.  

While listening to the often emotional testimony from a group of West Berkeley neighbors, a number of board members expressed frustration at some of the long-standing problems in the area, especially with respect to health. 

“I am a West Berkeley resident and a parent and I have concerns about the high levels of pollution in West Berkeley, the high levels of asthma, and the impact that has on my kids,” said Robin Harley, who carried her baby and broke down in tears while speaking. 

Harley said that although the staff report showed that Pacific Steel’s operation schedule was seven days a week, 24 hours a day, a more detailed schedule would alert parents of children with asthma when there were “high levels of particulate matter in the air”—which she called asthma triggers—“so that kids could come inside or play in a different area.” 

Christopher Kroll of the West Berkeley Alliance for Clean Air & Safe Jobs said that although the staff report paints a “very sunny and everything-is-taken-care-of” picture of the situation, the reality is very different. 

Kroll complained that contrary to the claims of planning staff and Mayor Tom Bates that complaints against Pacific Steel have decreased over the years, the complaint system itself was broken because of delayed investigation and a lack of follow-up. 

“You guys have the power to bring PSC in here and to enforce some changes on how they operate and to clean them up,” Kroll said, calling for a public hearing. “We need you to be involved regardless of what your staff and the mayor tell you. The problem is not solved. There continue to be nuisance problems. We need your help.” 

David Schroeder, also from the West Berkeley Alliance, echoed Kroll’s words. 

“We call and we call and we call and we get sick of calling because we can’t get the complaints confirmed, we can’t get the message across to agencies that should be in charge to deal with this issue,” he said. “The take-away message is there’s a public nuisance. It’s up to you to do your best to deal with this problem.” 

Dr. Toni Stein, who has been involved with the issue since 1998, requested that in the absence of an public odor management plan—community activists sued Pacific Steel in April to get the plan after the company withheld it on the grounds that it contained trade secrets—Pacific Steel should release information about its odor control activities in a nonproprietary format, so that the layperson could understand it. 

“We are all really, really tired,” she said. “People have given up on calling and complaining.” 

Allen said he was disappointed that there was nobody from the city was present at the meeting to explain the different reports on Pacific Steel. 

“We owe those citizens everything we can possibly do to get to the bottom of it,” he said, “because only then can we figure out a solution.” 

Matthews said it was important to send Pacific Steel the message that the board was looking at the use permit closely so that they can correct the problems. 

“Sometimes you have to go right in there and say, ‘We’re going to close it down ourselves if you don’t get busy,” said zoning board member Jessie Anthony. “I think the companies understand that they can do something if they are forced to do it. I don’t want to put companies out of business. I don’t think that’s necessary.” 

The board asked planning staff to return with information on the use permit conditions and the procedure for measuring particulates in West Berkeley. 

They also asked for information on the process for responding to complaints, historical data on particulates and on previous work city staff has carried out on this issue, including any obstacles they might have faced. 

Sanderson said that she was bothered by how the zoning board was implying that “nobody in the city cares and nobody has tried to do anything.” 

“You are not the first ones to tackle this, and there are people who spent hours and hours and hours in this city and they have made improvements, and they have hit some walls,” she said. “So I think there are some folks listening to this meeting on the television who are elected officials and other staff people who are probably highly offended right now at the presumption that no one has done anything.” 

Matthews rushed to the board’s defense, saying “It’s not about not doing anything, it’s doing something different.” 

Sanderson advised the board that before trying out a different approach, they should read up on what has already been tried to address the issue. 

“And I don’t hear any interest in this board in understanding of what they have tried to do,” she said. “It has been referred to as philosophical studies. There is a whole action that’s been taken, a whole a lot of efforts made, a lot of changes and it’s not enough. I think to just jump in and say we are going to make it better, you are going to tie yourselves in knots.” 

Matthews apologized to Sanderson, explaining that it had not been the board’s intention to offend anyone, following which the board agreed to also look at previous work carried out by the city on the issue.