Public Comment

Something Stinks in West Berkeley

By Mark McDonald
Thursday February 18, 2010 - 08:59:00 AM

Something stinks in West Berkeley and it’s not just the noxious odors coming from several industrial firms primarily Pacific Steel Castings foundry (PSC) on Gilman Street.  

In 1975 I first smelled the infamous “burnt pot handle” odor allegedly caused by PSC’s phenol releases that people have been complaining about since the 1960’s. The phenols may be obnoxious but there are other non-smelly toxic airborne substances usually associated with foundries like PSC which are nickel, manganese, cadmium, chromium, dioxins, copper, zinc, lead, benzine, iron, formaldehyde, creosote and carbon tetrachloride.  

We don’t know exactly what is coming from PSC because in all those decades of complaints the City of Berkley and the Bay Area Air Quality Management Board (BAAQMB) haven’t properly tested the plant’s emissions. They have allowed the company to expand by letting them build a second facility in the 1970’s and then a third in the 1990’s. In 1997 local government allowed PSC to build an incinerator in which they burn toxic wastes saving the company lots of money on hauling and disposal but adding more poisons to local air. In just one year (2003) PSC announced a 44 percent increase in airborne emissions. In a colossal failure of responsibility and common sense local government has also allowed dense residential housing to cluster right up near the plant’s borders.  

Neighbors have legitimate concerns as last year it was revealed that of the entire nation’s ten most toxic schools three are in West Berkeley. The State of California has identified the four districts stretching from Oakland through Berkeley into Richmond as being the highest in child asthma. 

 I attended Berkeley’s Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB) Jan. 14 meeting on PSC’s operating permit which the board was empowered to suspend if PSC failed to demonstrate sufficient progress on diminishing the nuisance complaints by neighbors.  

There is no exact data on emissions because there is no adequate system to collect and analyze them which would be fence-line monitors as recommended by many including the city’s environment commission (CEAC). Lacking this information the ZAB is forced to rely on the actual number of complaints by local groups and individuals to BAAQMB. Unfortunately many of the neighbors explained why they don’t call complaints into the BAAQMB any more because they do not trust them. They described an elaborate and confusing system where someone has to come to the complainer’s house and verify the odor. If enough complaints are verified, they get certified and if not the complaints disappear. Even if someone comes soon enough a person complaining about an odor has to describe the smell with an adjective that matches the one in the official’s mind or the complaint doesn’t count. Most say there isn’t any follow up so they believe many successful complaints are being dumped. 

Berkeley and BAAQMB officials were there in force and spoke repeatedly about the PSC’s new carbon collection system and a fabric bag odor abatement equipment though it was hard to understand how or if any of the new stuff actually reduced toxics. The officials all talked about the “particulate” problem which they insinuate might be actually from the exhaust from the adjacent highway and railroad tracks. Highways and fireplaces do put a lot of particulate into the air but the substances we are mostly worried about are unique to foundries.  

It has become so painfully obvious that a proper monitoring system is needed that BAAQMB has recently made some theatrical gestures by putting a solitary monitor of the wrong type blocks away that operates at sporadic times. So far the results are inconclusive and I saw no reason to trust anything about the project. They gave $25,000 of taxpayer money to local activists who in desperation and with good intention purchased EPA approved roof-top air collectors which immediately showed dangerous levels of manganese and nickel. The BAAQMB sat on the information and then quietly rejected the findings as being “unprofessional.”  

West Berkeley residents have come to believe that BAAQMB’s main job is to diffuse public complaints while promoting the false impression that they are protecting the health of the public. Many union workers came to say how badly they need the good paying jobs but most of them live elsewhere and drive to the plant. Complaints seem to be less lately but since the plant is running at half capacity with 300 workers the air might be better because of the economic downturn.  

One cannot ignore the blatant and corrupt incompetence by government in this matter. PSC’s public relations firm is owned and operated by two former Democrats, Elizabeth Jewell and Dion Aroner, former state representative for this district, who could be seen coordinating speakers and signs supporting the foundry at the ZAB meeting.  

For the record I believe that if the government can bail out crooked bankers then workers should not be made to suffer for government’s failure in letting a potentially dangerous smoke-stack facility and a residential community grow together without the necessary buffer zone. That being said it is not acceptable for anybody to poison people for profit or a paycheck. Up wind at the Chevron refinery BAAQMB and the Richmond Council recently approved processing of more toxic crude oil without adequate analysis of the airborne emissions. Berkeley folks take notice; a lawsuit by several groups against BAAQMB and the Richmond Council stopped the new dirtier crude oil for now.  

Berkeley people can ask Mayor Bates who is also vice-Chair and soon to become Chair of BAAQMB why the CEAC recommended perimeter monitors haven’t been installed yet. The Berkeley School District needs to know what their students are breathing at the affected schools and may need to relocate the students for their safety. Local activists have begun a body-burden study which should help ascertain what is in the West Berkeley air. Any results from monitors and studies should be reviewed by independent scientists.  

We are indebted to many good activists but especially Mr. L.A. Wood who coordinates an excellent website Berkeley Citizen where folks can find much good information.  


Mark McDonald is a Berkeley resident.