Pacific Steel Casting: At What Cost?
L A Wood, Berkeley Daily Planet June 20, 2006
The stacks of Pacific Steel Casting rise high above the northwest Berkeley
skyline of Oceanview. Once surrounded by manufacturing and light industry,
the foundry now finds itself constrained by residential neighborhoods
and a growing retail presence. This move towards gentrification is on
a collision course with PSC’s massive expansion of its operations.
Indeed, Pacific Steel, which claims to be the third largest facility
of its kind in the country, has been the city’s number one zoning
conflict for over a dozen years.
Despite huge increases in the steel mill’s production and the
commensurate increase in odors, airborne chemicals and particulates
over the last decade, Berkeley’s Zoning Adjustments Board has
refused to move forward and demand an honest measurement of the health
risks to residents. Since 1991, the board has allowed Pacific Steel
to operate with an incomplete use permit, and has consistently avoided
a review of the foundry’s operations.
This has never been more evident than it was several weeks ago when
PSC’s use permit for Facility No. 3 was placed on the board’s
agenda. As has been its custom in years past, ZAB elected to open the
public discussion of the steel company’s proposal in the wee hours
of the morning while most of Berkeley slept.
The late night hearing concerned PSC’s request to install a two-million-dollar
carbon adsorption system at Facility 3. As expected, the project’s
approval by ZAB has met with community opposition. An appeal was filed
which is now on the council agenda for this week. Of the ZAB members
who managed to stay awake, it’s doubtful that any of them understood
much about the proposed carbon system.
In ZAB’s haste to streamline the foundry’s permit process,
the board simply streamlined the public out. From a perspective of community
health, Pacific Steel’s investment will provide very little by
way of emissions control. ZAB’s approval not only has given the
board’s blessing to PSC’s runaway expansion, but also license
to pollute even more.
Using carbon adsorption or filtration to control odors is certainly
not a new idea. It has been employed in many commercial and industrial
applications, but has seen extremely limited use by steel production
companies other than Pacific Steel. Those who support the notion that
the proposed carbon system will adequately abate all health concerns
for nearby residents should reflect on the history of tobacco regulation
and the lessons learned.
Joe Camel and Pacific Steel
Everyone remembers the public uproar a number of years ago concerning
cigarette smoke and cancer. Back then, the tobacco industry refused
to admit any adverse health impacts associated with cigarettes. Since
then, science has come a long way in understanding the dangers of smoking.
Equally important was the discovery that exposure to secondhand cigarette
smoke is also extremely harmful. Similarly, there is a growing concern
about PSC’s emissions and the severe harm that could result from
A city ordinance now prohibits cigarette smoking within twenty feet
of commercial doorways. What should the safety zone be for nearby residents
exposed to emissions from PSC’s stacks? Unfortunately, not enough
is known about the company’s emissions to determine that at this
time. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD), which regulates
the foundry’s air discharge permits, brushes aside this and all
other questions about public health while adamantly defending PSC’s
emissions as safe.
It is interesting to note that even the tobacco industry has employed
carbon technology in some filtered cigarettes. Among other things, the
filter was supposed to control unwanted odors, not unlike the proposed
carbon adsorption system at PSC. The difference is that a huge amount
of money was funneled into the researching tobacco consumption, but
little is known about the true nature of PSC’s emissions or what
the proposed carbon adsorption system can or can’t do. It isn’t
for lack of opportunity. Carbon systems were installed at PSC’s
No. 1 and No. 2 facilities in 1985 and 1991.
Exhaustive investigations into the effects of
cigarette smoking were conducted on laboratory animals. At Pacific Steel,
it’s the residents who have been made the guinea pigs because
of BAAQMD’s poor oversight and PSC’s missing health assessment.
It should be remembered that the foundry’s carbon absorption systems
and stacks represent far more than just giant cigarettes. Unlike tobacco,
the range of chemical emissions, high volume of particulates, and dispersion
patterns make PSC’s emissions far more problematic for the surrounding
community. And unlike cigarette smoking, living downwind from the foundry’s
stink is not a choice for many residents.
Public Health First, Then Jobs
The momentum to daylight public health concerns relating to PSC emissions
has been thirty years in coming. The current efforts by BAAQMD to investigate
the factory’s air discharges have been repeatedly criticized by
the affected community as woefully inadequate. The air district’s
failure to do so reflects its strong industry bias. BAAQMD has resisted
all opportunities to understand PSC emissions and has allowed the foundry
to lag behind normal regulatory science.
An overt sign of these serious shortcomings can be seen in the recent
intervention last month by the Golden Gate School Environmental Law
and Justice Clinic as well as Communities for a Better Environment into
the discussion. Working together, Golden Gate and CBE have noticed Pacific
Steel of their intent to sue over violations of the Clean Air Act. This
legal challenge questions whether PSC has violated its emissions limits
and points to the company’s failure to correctly record its activities.
Facility No. 3’s use permit, now before council, is a central
focus of this outside legal inquiry.
the most important issue highlighted by the lawsuit relates directly
to the health assessment being constructed by BAAQMD. If PSC is shown
to have exceeded its emissions limits, then how can the air district
begin to accurately quantify the health risk to residents and avoid
underestimating the adverse health impacts?
The politics of tobacco and those that encompass Pacific Steel are remarkably
similar. Like the tobacco industry, PSC’s $25-million payroll
and its 600 plus union employees pack a big political wallop. Like tobacco
interests, the steel company is driven by profits, so the political
imperative for PSC has not been to invest in scientifically understanding
community health risks, but in touting the number of jobs it provides
in Berkeley. It should be noted that although PSC is a family-owned
operation, most of its employees live outside Berkeley.
Neighbors have also had to contend with an outside lobby that includes
Oakland’s recent mayoral candidate, De La Fuente, who continues
to exert his influence in resisting any review of the foundry. Because
of heightened public awareness of its emission problems, Pacific Steel
has hired both a PR firm and the services of Dion Aroner, an ex- assemblywoman
turned paid-political consultant. Needless to say, the community has
been no match for this professional team, which has been quite successful
in running roughshod over the neighborhood and the regulatory process.
Even Berkeley’s big-business mayor, Tom Bates, has joined the
team and now sits on the air district’s board of directors. Was
this move a direct reaction to the pending lawsuit against PSC or is
it an attempt to appear more “green” for his upcoming re-election
bid? In any case, the purpose of these backroom deals has not been to daylight
Pacific Steel’s emissions, but to stabilize community insurgency.
Bates’ presence at the air district will only ensure that the
foundry is further shielded from public scrutiny.
It’s time to set aside all the regulatory speculation and politics
regarding PSC’s emissions once and for all. Verify, verify, verify!
This can only be done with continuous stack and fence-line air monitoring
of actual emissions levels. Permanent air monitoring should be made
mandatory with the pending use permit. Compared to the two- million-dollar
price tag of another carbon system, monitoring is a small enough investment
given what’s at stake. Pacific Steel’s
cost to operate should not be paid for with our community’s health.