Public Comment

Pacific Steel and the Zoning Adjustments Board

By Chris Kroll, David Schroeder and Janice Schroeder
Thursday January 28, 2010 - 08:41:00 AM

Last Thursday, after holding a meeting solely about Pacific Steel Casting Company (PSC), the Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB) postponed its decision to accept or reject PSC’s most recent annual performance review. The West Berkeley Alliance for Clean Air and Safe Jobs had urged the ZAB to modify PSC’s use permit to ensure air cleanup. The decision to postpone came at the end of a sometimes dramatic meeting that demonstrated the way the city of Berkeley is run. The meeting process raised alarming questions about the way commissions like the ZAB are manipulated for political purposes by elected officials, city staff, and the corporate interests they often serve.  


Last year  

On Sept. 10, 2009, city of Berkeley staff submitted a Staff Report to the ZAB, recommending approval of PSC’s annual performance review and declaring that PSC was in compliance with its permit. The report stated that the efforts of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD), the city of Berkeley, and PSC to reduce odor emissions at the facility were proceeding; odor complaints had decreased since the 2006 installation of the carbon unit that filters some pollution from the air.  

Staff recommended that the ZAB accept the report without further review. As had happened in 2006, people from the West Berkeley community urged the ZAB not to accept the staff’s opinion that all was well, but to instead add conditions to PSC’s permits, such as comprehensive Toxic Use Reduction (TUR). TUR is a process by which the company, regulators, and all stakeholders openly revise all chemical inputs and outputs at PSC, implementing more efficient, productive and green practices from top to bottom (see  

Although under pressure from Deborah Sanderson, City Zoning Officer, to once again approve the annual performance report, ZAB members expressed their unwillingness to approve the report without fully understanding the status of PSC’s cleanup. This greatly upset Ms. Sanderson, who berated the board for its impertinence (see the video of the Sept. 10, 2009, ZAB meeting). The staff, city officials, and PSC had expected a rubber stamp from the ZAB, but the board members held their ground, requesting additional details for a subsequent meeting.  


PSC’s representation  

That meeting was held Thursday night, Jan. 14, 2010. Unlike the September meeting, this time the crowd was overflowing with PSC workers and their families, PSC’s union leadership (such as Oakland City Councilmember Ignacio de la Fuente), PSC’s owner and management team, and PSC PR maven Elisabeth Jewel. Ms. Jewel effectively choreographed the meeting, handing out talking points to the workers and deciding who would speak for PSC. PSC was well represented, but the city attorney’s office was not; there was no one in the city attorney’s chair. Mayor Tom Bates arrived with City Councilmember Linda Maio, in whose district PSC is located. That was the first time Mayor Bates had attended a ZAB meeting since being elected mayor. Why this meeting? It seemed odd that Mayor Bates and Councilmember Maio took seats at the staff table instead of in the audience.  

Once the meeting was called to order, they each gave introductory speeches on the situation vis-à-vis PSC’s toxic and odorous emissions. Mayor Bates was especially effusive about PSC’s efforts to reduce its emissions, while Councilmember Maio was less effusive, though still of the opinion that everything was on the right track. During a meeting break, both Linda Maio and Deborah Sanderson went up to the ZAB dais and all ZAB members circled them to listen closely. When the meeting resumed, other speakers heard from were BAAQMD senior staff members Brian Bateman and Kelly Wee, PSC owner Katie Del Sol, PSC Environmental Engineer Chris Chan, and Ignacio de la Fuente, all extolling the great strides made by PSC.  

Community Rejoinder 

Community members and local environmental groups were next to speak.  

The community contested the statements made by the city officials and staff, BAAQMD, and PSC. Members of the public described personal experiences with PSC’s noxious odors, questioned the validity of PSC’s Health Risk Assessment, critiqued the BAAQMD’s West Berkeley Air Monitoring Project, and explained that public nuisance air pollution complaints have declined due to flaws in the broken BAAQMD complaint process. The West Berkeley Alliance for Clean Air and Safe Jobs asked the ZAB to modify PSC’s use permits by adding health-protective conditions. A few other community members instead asked for PSC’s use permit to be revoked.  

ZAB Delays  

Ms. Sanderson berated board members once again when they questioned her and requested additional information. When a board member asked to have a representative from the city health department speak to the ZAB about pollution-related health issues in West Berkeley, Ms. Sanderson informed the board that she thought the City Manager would not approve it! When board members asked health-related questions, she told them that the City of Berkeley Community Environmental Advisory Commission (CEAC) had taken the lead for the city, addressing issues related to PSC so that the ZAB need not concern itself. This statement was directly contradicted by two letters in the board’s packet from the chair of the CEAC. The letters requested ZAB’s help because CEAC has no leverage over PSC or BAAQMD while ZAB does through its permit authority.  

After so much contention, the ZAB decided to postpone until February the decision on whether to accept PSC’s Annual Performance Report. Stay tuned for the ZAB meeting in February...  


Chris Kroll, David Schroeder and Janice Schroeder are Berkeley residents and members of the West Berkeley Alliance for Clean Air and Safe Jobs.