Air Quality Battle in Oceanview

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Air Quality Battle in Oceanview
L A Wood,  Berkeley Voice, Thursday, September 9, 1999

Harrison Field AIr warningFrom the occasional refinery fire to the ongoing development of the San Francisco Basin, more and more questions are now being raised regarding air quality assurance. How do we sustain a clean air environment when industry's smokestacks and residential housing are forced to coexist? For more than a quarter of a century, this conflict has been played out in the Oceanview District of West Berkeley. Oceanview is an odorous area, where new microbreweries and old steel foundries are mixed in with a growing community of nearby residents, cafes, offices, and preschools. The high level of local airborne contaminants is signaling the existence of a serious regulatory imbalance and a growing community health crisis.

The smells can be traced directly back to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD). No, they don't produce the pollution. Their job is air quality assurance for stationary sources of air pollution. Given the current emissions crisis in Oceanview, it would appear that BAAQMD operates with no emission limits. Each year they allow more pollutants to enter the atmosphere over Berkeley, adding to the toxic soup we all breathe. There are numerous example of this, but perhaps none better than Pacific Steel Castings Company (PSC). Already the area's (and Berkeley's) largest air pollution dischargers, PSC was recently given a permit with no public review to substantially increase its site emissions when it began the annual incineration of 10,000 tons of chemically saturated sand.

When local residents have raised concerns about air quality and permits like PSC's incinerator, they have been summarily dismissed. BAAQMD, operating outside the city, has allowed a regulatory climate in Berkeley where anything goes. Yet, if this community is any measure of air quality assurance, then last month's public hearing about PSC reflects a somber reality. More than 50 residents from West Berkeley and Albany expressed concern over the area's increased emissions, noxious odors, and especially the chronic health impact on their families. Several speakers noted that a medical scan of their blood had showed elevated levels of toxins ranging from heavy metals to formaldehyde. It's not surprising that many of these air wastes are known to come directly out PSC's many stacks.

However, PSC's emissions are certainly not the single source of air degradation in Oceanview neighborhoods. Berkeley Tool and Forge, next door to PSC, as well as the other manufacturers clustered near Second and Gilman Streets, all contribute to this local air quality crisis. Since air quality is a product of all these discharges, then what does BAAQMD say about the cumulative impacts? Who knows! BAAQMD doesn't evaluate cumulative permit impacts from multiple facilities. This is an egregious regulatory blind spot for BAAQMD which refuses to look at the bigger picture. This also explains, in part, why an area like West Berkeley continues to suffer from mounting air pollution problems. Currently, BAAQMD has a program to flag its permit holders for possible toxic hot spots and to evaluate the necessity for needed health risk assessment.

Unbelievably, BAAQMD's toxic screening has always failed to identify PSC. As expected, this screening process for toxics has been of little help in identifying collective air quality problems. The district's air toxic reduction plan currently does not focus on cumulative emission impacts nor does it have any fixed regulatory limits for urban areas like West Berkeley. Unfortunately, it appears that this regulatory deficiency will not change soon.In the early 1970s, the Oceanview area was designated as part of West Berkeley's Industrial Park redevelopment. This redevelopment initiated a vocal community struggle over the establishment of sustainable parameters for mixed used development and environmental quality.

Today, Oceanview houses the last remaining industrial dinosaurs like PSC, as well as a large portion of Berkeley's other companies with BAAQMD air discharge permits. As stated earlier, the area's toxic emissions are not solely PSC's but are a collective business problem. Yet publicly, PSC has been slow to point the finger at its many air-polluting neighbors. Businesses like PSC are keenly aware that pointing out other local polluters will only promote a new regulatory focus on cumulative pollution levels, and ultimately, the establishment of area emission thresholds.

From this business perspective, the evaluation of cumulative air discharges is little more than a Pandora's box. It would certainly change how new or modified facilities are permitted. For example, PSC's new incinerator might have been evaluated differently by regulators if it had to be measured against the high levels of ozone, particulates, and other chemicals already present in large quantities over Oceanview. Instead, the voice of business and redevelopment, which claims continual hardship, is being heard over the cries of local residents. The net result has been reduced community health, property values, and of course, air quality.

The air regulation industry has become one large myopic family as illustrated by an air quality engineering firm currently working with Oceanview breweries. They have suggested the solution for PSC and other air dischargers lies in masking emission odors with a new organic product called Enviro-scent. This misguided approach fails to critically address the toxic aspect of odorous emissions as well as the many non-odorous toxic emissions spewing out of the stacks in west Berkeley. Industry and BAAQMD must begin to recognize that there is a bottom line in air quality assurance: our community's health.

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