Pacific Steel Casting: ZAB ’em!
L A Wood, Berkeley Daily Planet, May 9, 2006
Absent for over fifteen years, Pacific Steel Casting (PSC) has finally
made a return to the Berkeley Zoning Adjustments Board. The steel mill
is requesting modification of their use permit #8957 for operating one
of their three facilities on Second Street. A privately owned, west
Berkeley company, PSC has the distinction of being the city’s
biggest stationary air polluter. This fact is also reflected in its
long history of neighborhood conflicts, odor nuisance complaints, and
Specifically, the mill has petitioned for changes to Facility No. 3.,
an open-air pour foundry permitted by ZAB in 1979. The last modification
to this use permit was made in 1991. At the same time, an out-of-court
settlement forced PSC to address its odor nuisance. The settlement required
the foundry to “determine and alleviate the odor problem within
18 to 22 months.” In retrospect,ZAB should have waited to approve
the changes to Facility No. 3 until the court-linked evaluations were
Although the 1991 permit modification created real confusion for ZAB,
from the foundry’s perspective, pushing the use permit forward
made good sense. In this regulatory fog, the foundry managed to maneuver
changes to its operations and postpone any real verification of the
impacts. The folly of ZAB’s permit approval was obscured by PSC’s
half-hearted attempt to comply with the settlement agreement. This left
the evaluations for both the use permit and the settlement agreement
incomplete, as they remain today.
Pacific Steel wants permission to install a carbon filtration system
for emissions control at Facility No. 3. Why hasn’t anyone questioned
the logic of spending two million dollars to upgrade this residentially
bound steel mill? PSC should be encouraged to move this smallest and
dirtiest portion of its operations to a less urban area. Instead, the
Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD), which issues PSC’s
air discharge permits, has only praise for the foundry’s financial
commitment to the proposed system.
Perhaps PSC now recognizes the political benefits connected to this
investment, a lesson gleaned from the two existing adsorption units
in Facilities No. 1 and No. 2. Although these two units have been only
moderately effective in suppressing odors, over the long haul, they
have been absolutely effective in deflecting public criticism of PSC’s
emissions. Besides, how could anything possibly be wrong since the steel
company claims it spent nearly two and a half million dollars to install
both carbon systems in 1985 and 1991!
Objecting to the installation of another carbon absorption unit at the
foundry might seem a bit wacky since PSC is one of the largest steel
mills of its kind in the country. However, even with the use of both
carbon absorption beds at Facilities No. 1 & No. 2, odor complaints
continue to be identified with both buildings to this day. Indeed, these
absorption units may be linked to some of PSC’s unsolved odor
The Best Available Technology
The community has been told repeatedly that PSC’s carbon adsorption
system is the best available technology. This has never been at the
center of the debate over the proposed carbon beds. Instead, the discussion
has been about how well the technology actually works at PSC. The history
of this pollution control system might come as a surprise to many, especially
its proprietary connection to the foundry.
At a 1999 BAAQMD hearing about the foundry’s odors, a spokesperson
for PSC said, “We started this whole thing. We were the first
ones with a carbon absorption unit.” When asked by the hearing
board who else employs PSC’s system, it was revealed that while
one company in Arizona was considering it, the foundry’s fifteen-year
old technology was not being used anywhere else in the country.
When the foundry’s abatement scheme was first introduced in the
mid 1980s, the board labeled it “fundamentally speculative”
and suggested it to be an “overly optimistic process.” The
BAAQMD board was not convinced that the proposed carbon system would
eliminate the odor problems plaguing nearby homes and businesses. There
were strong doubts as to whether the proposed system was really the
best technology, much less the best odor control measure.
Some have asked, “Why not look at the recycled carbon to understand
what the adsorption system is really doing?” Unfortunately, PSC’s
used carbon is handled by a private contractor, which apparently distances
the foundry from any reporting requirements. The recycler, who handles
the dirty carbon for PSC, hauls it off to somewhere like Modesto, or,
even out of state, to be incinerated.
It is logical to assume that the ash from PSC’s recycled carbon
is hazardous due to heavy metals that would inevitably be embedded in
it. What toxic pollutants in PSC’s chemical inventory are captured
on the carbon beds? Which ones are not captured? Monitoring and evaluation
of the carbon system’s effectiveness, by an independent expert,
are desperately needed.
The air board’s assumption that another carbon adsorption system
is going to improve the impact of emissions and odors at PSC is truly
wishful thinking. For all that is known about the adsorption system’s
efficiency, it may, at times, actually exacerbate some of PSC’s
toxic emissions. Moreover, the existing absorption systems have never
been able to adequately control the foundry’s odors. No technology
can ever protect nearby residents without an adequate buffer zone. This
is why other Berkeley foundries have relocated.
The Health Risk: How Bad Can It Get?
Of all the egregious acts of use permit abuse recorded in Berkeley,
none is greater than ZAB’s acceptance of the Bendix report as
a qualified health risk assessment. The scope of the health risk evaluation,
as stipulated by the 1991 use permit, was to determine “if there
is a potential for adverse health effects of chemicals stored and used
at Facility No. 3. Bendix Environmental Research, which was hired as
the contractor, chose instead to refocus the scope of the work to the
evaluation of odors. This was an area in which Bendix had no formal
training or expertise.
From the beginning, this report was off the mark. The health risk data,
limited to information previously gathered by others, was presented
without any qualification of its validity. ZAB further contributed to
the distortion of this evaluation by allowing Bendix to refocus away
from the use permit for Facility No. 3 and to broaden the scope of the
report to include all three facilities.
The real twist to the Bendix report is that the steel mill became its
greatest supporter. In the last decade, each time the health risks from
its operations have come up for discussion, the foundry points to the
Bendix report to silence the public. PSC is quick to remind critics
that it paid for this report and that ZAB endorsed it. Recently, PSC
has agreed to undertake another health risk assessment for all of its
Berkeley operations. Neighbors have already objected to the proposed
protocol as woefully inadequate. ZAB should demand more.
Changes to the operations of Facility No. 3 in 1991 included a review
under the guidelines of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
The foundry’s request for flexible hours was deemed to have insignificant
impacts. Since that time, however, PSC has changed substantially. In
fact, Facility No. 3 has grown from 80 employees to a three-shift operation
of 180 workers!
PSC has tried to shrug off the huge growth of employees and production
by arguing the foundry was underutilized in the last decade. This is
a grossly misleading explanation for the steady rise in plant activity
and the near doubling of the steel tonnage in production over the last
two years alone. This increase has already generated significantly adverse
impacts that will only grow as PSC is allowed to expand its operations.
The use permit now demands a full environmental review. This review
must include the proposed carbon absorption unit and its effectiveness
as an emissions control. If ZAB moves for approval, it should require
installation of continuous emission monitors. These CEMs can be connected
electronically to BAAQMD, making the regulatory reporting of PSC’s
stack emissions more transparent to ZAB and our Berkeley community.
The 1991 use permit debacle is at the core of the current community
conflicts with the steel mill, BAAQMD and the city. The injustice of
this outdated permit, more than a decade of unanswered questions about
emissions and health risks, and this shoddy regulatory oversight must
stop. Pacific Steel Castings should be made to conform. ZAB’em!