After 25 years, a Berkeley polluter gets its wrist slapped
By Heather Staley, Published in Terrain Magazine, Summer 2005
Eighty anxious—and soon-to-be irate—residents gathered in mid-April to voice concerns about living near Pacific Steel Casting, a west Berkeley foundry that spews the smell of burning brakes. One man demanded of factory representatives, “I want to know if it is safe to raise my family here, and I want to know now.” The applause died quickly after Peter Hess, an officer from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, said he believes the answer is yes, but he could not provide scientific evidence to back up that assertion until two studies are completed. Disbelief spread throughout the room; after complaining about odors from the foundry for decades, residents found the idea that health risks still needed “study” incredible.
The crowd had one thing going for it: no one debated the source of the odors. PSC manufactures steel casts, heavy parts for the trucking, oil, and construction industries. Located at Second and Gilman streets, the foundry emits thousands of pounds of chemicals into the air each year, affecting areas of Oceanside, Albany, El Cerrito, Westbrae, and Kensington. The smell, also described as that of an overheated pot handle, has been detected two miles away in all directions and on UC Berkeley’s campus in the summer.
Fighting the odor has become a lifetime project for some residents—and proving the odor is harmful is even more difficult. The history of PSC versus its embattled neighbors illustrates the necessity of citizen persistence and the limitations of regulatory agencies charged with protecting health. Neighbors say that during the 1970s the factory began emitting a smell like burning brakes. In response to a series of complaints and to citizen pressure, the factory was required to install anti-pollution devices on many of its source emitters in 1983. Though lessened, the odors persisted, especially during summer months, and citizens began to wonder how living with years of discharge might affect their health.
Neighbors confronted PSC, the air district, and the city of Berkeley by questioning them directly, attending city council meetings, and writing letters. The district and the city have been playing “after you, Alphonse,” with the district maintaining it doesn’t have authority to shut down a facility without showing an overwhelming health burden through a prosecutorial board hearing. Air district officials say it’s in the city’s hands to take action against PSC, but the city relies on the air district to perform testing and monitoring, observe proper complaint procedures, and determine how harmful a facility is. Many believe that neither authority has been conducting its job sufficiently, but even the district agrees that it is its responsibility to enforce state air quality standards. Finally, in late March, after 25 years of citizen complaints, the air district slapped PSC with a notice of violation. Although the neighborhood conclave was part of a regularly scheduled meeting called by the mayor to discuss general Berkeley issues, neighbors pressured the city to invite representatives from PSC and the air district so plans for a less odorous future could be addressed.
Despite the victory, residents worry that city and regulatory agencies are not protecting their health, and they may be right. Oakland-based Pacific Institute substantiated the high health risk of PSC in a 1997 study, revealing that the foundry, out of all Bay Area facilities subject to Toxic Release Inventory reporting, ranked number two for carcinogenic risk. Another recent study concludes that asthma hospitalization rates for all Berkeley children are 2.5 times higher than for all California children, and asthma hospitalization rates in the PSC’s zip code, 94710, are highest in all of Berkeley.
But until the specific studies cited by the air district come in sometime this fall, citizens can only speculate on the composition of the chemicals emitted by the plant and whether they could cause such health problems. Says Joe Emmerichs, PSC’s general manager, “We don’t emit anything toxic.” PSC environmental engineer Christina Chan has said many times that PSC does not exceed allowable emissions or put harmful chemicals into the air. Yet when questioned at the neighborhood meeting about why odors have persisted through the years, she maintained that it is because PSC does not know from which source the odors originate. The air district’s Hess agreed: “We don’t know which source is the odor problem.”
The district has assured the city of Berkeley and residents that the odors are not dangerous at the allowable emission levels, but as Scott Lutz, an engineer with the air district’s Toxics Division admits, PSC’s emissions can be irritating to the respiratory tract of persons living or working nearby. This comes as no surprise to El Cerrito resident Steve Ingraham, who drives through the Gilman and Cedar corridors to get to work. Ingraham says that when he drives through the areas with the highest odor concentrations, he suffers from allergic reactions, and his symptoms do not begin to dissipate until he leaves the signature pot-handle smell behind.
Local activist L A Wood has been trying to force the air district to conduct studies on PSC for years. As a member of the city’s Community Environmental Advisory Commission, he believes PSC’s emissions are toxic, and in 2000 he requested that the Berkeley City Council ask the air district to conduct a health risk assessment for the area surrounding PSC. Five years later, apparently the assessment has only just begun. In an April 26, 2000 letter from district toxic evaluation manager Brian Bateman to Nabil Al-Hadithy, supervisor of Berkeley’s toxics management, Bateman said that the health assessment was delayed but estimated it would be complete by August of 2000. Yet, Hess said at the neighborhood meeting five years later that he had just asked the lead engineer to begin the health assessment the week before, leaving the community confused as to when or if it would begin or if it would ever be complete. Some believe the process was restarted only due to heightened scrutiny from the community.
Frustrated community members wonder why something so important went missing for so long. The air district does not commission health studies unless scientists estimate health risk for a facility at over one rate of cancer in 100,000 people over a 70-year period—an estimate used for persons developing cancer from breathing ambient air linked only to the facility, not from other sources such as diesel exhaust or smoking, for example. The numbers obtained and used to determine that risk were apparently lost in a computer crash several years back. The district does not want to acknowledge any level of toxicity until the new studies are complete. But in an interview, the district’s Lutz estimates that PSC’s health risk rate is above that level and that “some chemical emissions from the facility exceed what is expected.” Some neighbors believe the assessment results will be high enough to categorize the area as a “hot spot,” with levels significant enough to require PSC to reduce its emissions and potential health risk. This would include determining a threshold value for each toxic pollutant and requiring the air district to inform the community of its findings.
The district refers to California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment and Proposition 65 as its authority on the toxicity of criteria pollutants. Prop 65 considers that PSC emissions such as nickel, benzene, formaldehyde, phenols, and others have been known carcinogens or reproductive inhibitors since the ’80s. Lutz admits, “Phenolic compounds are not toxic, but they can break down to benzene, which is toxic,” and that last year’s PSC monitoring indicated that benzene emission levels made it what the agency called a “compound of concern.”
Both PSC and the air district have a history of not being forthcoming with residents and business owners about the odors. In 1983 a large number of complaints generated by the citizen activist group Neighbors for Clean Air prompted the district to act. It issued an unconditional order of abatement, forcing PSC to “refrain, cease, and desist” from discharging all odorous compounds having the smell of burning plastic or pot handles. PSC installed carbon scrubbers, bag filters, and other anti-pollution devices to reduce odors, though residents maintain that odors persisted. It turns out that PSC was able to get around installing abatement devices for Plant 3 (there are three plants at the same facility). PSC’s Chan says that during the time of its permitting process Plant 3′s production levels were not high enough to require abatement equipment.
PSC’s production has increased in recent months: it is producing parts for the eastern span of the Bay Bridge and perhaps casting parts for the war effort in Iraq and Afghanistan. Community leaders presume that the increase in production and lack of abatement equipment on Plant 3 and incomplete abatement equipment on Plant 2 discovered in 2000 are largely the cause of the recent stench. Chan says that carbon scrubbers are not an option in Plant 3 because they would cost multiple millions of dollars and that it would be very difficult to find alternative devices should PSC be legally required to do so.
Another controversy erupted earlier: In 1998 a thermal sand reclamation system was installed at the facility with the help of a Cal/EPA Waste Board loan. PSC’s permit application irregularly exempted the new system from California Environmental Quality Act regulations because it was seen as having “no adverse environmental impact.” Also, privately commissioned studies by PSC determined that “no odor would be detected beyond PSC’s property line.” This meant the system required no abatement devices because it was assumed the waste would be burned off the sand and that there would be no odors. Many in the community now claim that the system acts more like an incinerator; it burns chemicals at a high temperature and emits dangerous particles including carbon monoxide and potentially dangerous metals such as chromium and nickel.
Since 2000, PSC has been the source of the highest number of complaints in the air district’s jurisdiction, which covers the nine Bay Area counties. Air district policy states that when five complaints are made in a 24-hour period, an inspector comes to investigate within 30 minutes. If the odor is confirmed and linked to a specific source within a facility, the facility can be served with a nuisance violation.
It is not always this simple. District spokesperson Emily Hopkins admits that “it is difficult to confirm complaints because very often odors are fleeting and by the time inspectors arrive on site, odors may have subsided or floated away.” Some citizens in the neighborhood meeting said that they began smelling the odor but didn’t know what it was or where it was coming from, and thus didn’t understand they could take action by calling in a complaint. The air district does not make it a habit of coming to the community and telling citizens how to complain. Some citizens called the city to ask how to complain but were not given the phone number of the air district.
And there are still impediments: If the inspector cannot link the odor to a specific source even if he or she can smell the odor, it cannot be verified. Complainants must wait on site for an inspector to arrive and conduct the investigation, even if they have to leave for work. Public hearing transcripts for PSC’s sand reclamation system reveal that many complainants were told to call back when they detected the odors again since inspectors could not link the odor to a specific source. Other reports say that the district disregarded calls from what it terms “serial complainants.”
In 2000 PSC petitioned and won the right to have the unconditional order of abatement lifted. Hearing transcripts say attorneys for PSC argued that the “lack of any public nuisance violations against the company is the most objective evidence that an odor problem has been solved, given the subjective nature of odors.” Toni Stein, an environmental engineer and air quality specialist who served as a public representative on the Air District Hearing Board submitted a dissenting opinion. Stein wrote that PSC had clearly not proved that it had abated odors sufficiently to lift the abatement order. She also lodged a number of criticisms of the district—the primary being that the complaint process for PSC was violating the district’s own procedural rules and did not reflect PSC’s actual nuisance value.
Community members say the reduction in complaints simply meant that citizens were fed up with complaining. Neighbors for Clean Air’s Janice Schroeder said in the meeting that she suffered from headaches, watery eyes, and sore throats, but she’d gotten tired of calling in complaints for 11 years with inadequate or no response, especially because she thought it had already been proven that PSC constituted a public nuisance and that the burden should not rest on citizens to initiate action. Schroeder indicated that on one occasion an inspector with a cold came to investigate but could not smell anything due to her illness and therefore would not validate the complaint. Stein believes the district conducted a “concerted effort to wear the public out.” Since 1998 when the incinerator was installed, complaints began increasing, but only 22 percent were verified or confirmed by inspectors. Community members believe that if the air district had followed its own procedures, many more complaints would have been verified, the incinerator couldn’t have been installed, and the abatement order would not have been lifted.
Stein also questioned how much of the emissions were being abated since there were no devices on Plant 3 or on the incinerator in Plant 2. The operating permits for the incinerator allow the release of unabated air within certain temperature ranges for no more than 15-minute intervals each hour in order to allow the incinerator to warm up for each batch of sand. Also, untreated or “fugitive” air can go through one of many open doors at the facility without being “scrubbed”—and in fact fully 50 percent of the emissions from Plant 2 are not treated at all. Evidence was found in the air district’s operating permit that indicates only half of the untreated air is required to go through carbon absorption units on days with adverse meteorology, but there was no definition of adverse meteorology anywhere in the permit. When questioned about this in the neighborhood meeting, Chan confirmed that only 50 percent of the emissions are filtered; it is unclear why the district put this loophole in the permit.
Sand with resin binder residues is housed outdoors where fine dust can blow away; during the public hearing process for the abatement lift, residents testified that they were suffering from multiple chemical sensitivity syndrome, and others had children who had been diagnosed with what doctors call reactive airway disease. Residents claimed that the odors were terrible, that their children could not play outside during certain times of the day, and that they were told that the odors they were detecting were from exhaust fumes on I-80.
Stein was later dismissed from the Hearing Board by the air district because she says she and another commissioner were “two members inclined to review district decisions very closely.” She fought her dismissal and eventually gained reinstatement, though she no longer serves on the board. Her questions have never been resolved, and the community continues to ask the same questions five years later.
Although the area’s representative, City Councilmember Linda Maio, wasn’t present at the April meeting, Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates was—and he said that PSC was a problem in the ’70s when he was on the California Air Resources Board, in the ’80s when he was on the city council and in the state legislature, and it continues to be a problem now. So why hasn’t there been more progress in forcing PSC to reduce its toxic emissions or at very least, odors? This question went unanswered, but Bates did say that he “would do everything he can to bring PSC into compliance,” and he supported a citizen suggestion that a task force be organized to follow the situation.
L A Wood and others point to Berkeley’s pro-business climate as a driving force that allows the foundry to operate as it wishes. The company brings in tax dollars for the city and is one of Berkeley’s largest employers. The factory donates to city organizations and is a participant in the Spare the Air program with the district, providing information about alternative transportation on high pollution days.
Sources within the air district say that management prioritizes other issues, such as diesel exhaust regulation, over PSC-related pollution, and that the agency suffers a lack of funding and staffing to carry out its own mandates. The district continues to maintain that PSC’s emissions are not dangerous—or at least it doesn’t know if the emissions are dangerous—but it does acknowledge odor concerns. Hess promised that the health risk assessment would be complete by mid-summer and that the region-wide study would include PSC as well as other stationary and area emitters such as dry cleaners and freeways. This project will be completed by September.
When asked why the recent violation notices were issued in such a pro-PSC climate, Al-Hadithy points to citizen activism. Citizens are educating themselves about the complaint process, are organizing to form phone trees and creating Web sites, are banding together to share toxicology information, and commissioning their own scientific studies. It’s the old truism: If you want something done, do it yourself.
To make a complaint to the air district day or night, call 1-800-334-ODOR (1-800-334-6367)