Public Comment

Commentary: We Love the ZAB

By Janice and David Schroeder
Thursday September 17, 2009 - 09:53:00 AM

Pacific Steel Casting Company (PSC) was the topic at the Sept. 10 Zoning Adjustment Board’s meeting at which PSC’s current performance review was presented as an information item. The staff report stated that everything is fine, but this preposterous claim only served to provoke community members and the ZAB to question what dowe actually know, think we know, and need to know about PSC.  

The powers that be evidently did not expect concerned community members to attend this ZAB meeting, because they were elsewhere that night. Without their interference, current members of the ZAB listened to our concerns, treated us respectfully, and most importantly said they needed more information than the City staff included in the staff report.   

In 2007, the ZAB issued a use permit for PSC to finally outfit its Plant 3 with a pollution control device. At that time ZAB required only one substantive condition in the use permit: performance reviews. The 2007 ZAB required no further cleanup of PSC, no guarantee of transparency and no community collaboration; in short, no toxic use reduction. Every step of the 2007 ZAB hearing on PSC’s use permit was heavily influenced by the mayor’s staff and Dion Aroner, PSC’s Public Relations flack, who ultimately called the shots. Aroner effectively directed city staff to have ZAB push through PSC’s bidding in the wee hours of the morning and directed the ZAB to reverse its earlier vote when the vote displeased her.  

To make matters worse, the performance reviews were based in part on Notices of Violation issued to PSC by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD). A Notice of Violation can be issued when BAAQMD inspectors respond to five or more community members’ odor complaints within a 24-hour period, smell the odor with each complainant, and trace the odor (block by block) to the source. Complaints are practically impossible to confirm when BAAQMD inspectors do not respond to complaints the same day, or when atmospheric conditions prevent the odor from sitting stationary all along the city blocks so it can be traced back to the polluter.  

Although they had not been provided with all of the information they needed, ZAB members were asked to sign off on PSC’s performance report based on a biased and woefully inadequate staff report. One ZAB member stated that they kept getting PSC’s performance reports, but they did not have adequate background, context and time to discuss and understand the reports.   

The city has stood behind PSC’s Health Risk Assessment (HRA) results despite the city-paid review by Tetra Tech EM Inc in March 2008. Tetra Tech leveled criticisms of PSC's HRA's assumptions, methodology, and results, along with specific recommendations that were not applied to the final HRA by PSC. To mention just two, Tetra Tech was concerned by the HRA’s lack of evaluation of cumulative impact of emissions, and the HRA’s use of 1989 source test data along with data from 2005-2006. Why did the city not release Tetra Tech’s 2008 review to the public until last Thursday in a ZAB agenda attachment? A letter from the State Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, which was included as an attachment to the ZAB report, indicates that science does not yet have the ability to predict how dangerous and noxious the cumulative impact of PSC’s pollution is. 

The city adopted the Precautionary Principle several years ago. Why is it not being applied here?    

Another piece of new information no one from the community knew was casually dropped at the ZAB meeting by Debbie Sanderson, city staffer in Planning, when she mentioned an environmental impact report (EIR) being prepared by city staff studying West Berkeley air quality, noise and traffic. Why didn’t District 1 Councilmember Linda Maio or Mayor Bates make West Berkeley residents aware of this EIR? And so it goes …Will the ZAB do the right thing and use its powers over PSC’s use permit to address the on-going toxic emissions from PSC, or will it just be more of the same inaction by the city. Stay tuned for the next ZAB meeting; everyone will be there.    



Janice and David Schroeder are members of West Berkeley Alliance for Clean Air and Safe Jobs.