Cancer Risk in West Berkeley

Cancer Risk in West Berkeley
L A Wood, Berkeley Daily Planet, January 29, 2008

For decades, the stench from airborne chemicals emitted by Pacific Steel Casting has been allowed to pollute the air downwind from its foundries with virtual impunity. Environmental changes have come slowly to this part of the city. While other industrial polluters are much smaller, or have moved away in response to the growing residential population in this district, PSC’s operations have been allowed to expand. Until recently, it appeared that nothing would ever change.

About six months ago, a group of residents, with the aid of Global Community Monitor, an environmental justice organization, began collecting air samples across the northwest portion of the city. Aided by a grant from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD), this monitoring project is an historic effort. It is the first serious attempt to actually define the impacts from spewing stacks, unabated roof vents and open doors at the Second Street steel foundry. Nothing of this magnitude has ever been attempted in the neighborhoods outside the fence line of Pacific Steel.

A team of community volunteers set up portable air samplers on residential rooftops downwind from the steel foundry. This “citizens’ science” effort has detected some startling findings about airborne metal particulates. The large collection of samples clearly shows excessive manganese and nickel levels at many locations close to Pacific Steel. Predictably, the foundry claims the airborne metals are not from their operations. However, according to the Air District, 100% of the manganese, and 99% of the nickel from all industrial sources in the area originate from PSC. Community air monitoring has proved that these airborne particulates can’t be blamed on the freeway.

Global Community Monitor’s report, generated by this extensive monitoring project, is due to be released this week. Needless to say, the results raise serious health concerns. It also reveals the city’s unsafe zoning practices in West Berkeley that fail to adequately protect nearby citizens from this longstanding environmental injustice.

Cancer risk zone PSCWest Berkeley Cancer Zone

This new information about Pacific Steel’s emissions couldn’t have come at a better time since the foundry has been required to update their sixteen-year-old Health Risk Assessment (HRA). The HRA has been called a whitewash by residents, and as expected, requires no real changes in PSC’s emissions or risk reduction.

“Low risk” or “No risk” is the message of the draft HRA to those residing and working near PSC. At least this is what the foundry’s consultant, Environ, has stated. But then, this is the sort of spin that contractors like this Emeryville firm get paid to serve up for industry. In any case, Environ has had their hands full trying to show that PSC, without any buffer to the surrounding community, creates no risk to the public’s health.

One requirement of the new HRA is to provide an estimate of the cancer burden from the foundry. This demand was triggered by PSC’s emissions of hexavalent chromium, arsenic, cadmium and nickel. The consultant’s analysis of the cancer risk posed by the steel mill included a map reflecting the narrowest possible “zone of impact”. The map drew a tight line around PSC that most conveniently excluded the two closest children’s facilities, the Duck’s Nest preschool, a mere block away, and the city-supported transitional housing at Ursula Sherman.

Environ’s estimates were counter to the findings from the community’s air monitoring which show high levels of airborne nickel more than a half mile from the facility. Although Environ publicly touted its analysis of PSC’s cancer risk to be on the conservative side, the community’s data places this assumption, as well as the entire HRA, in doubt.

Duck’s Nest, Canaries in the Mine Shaft

The most troubling interpretation of health risks created by Pacific Steel has been the stance taken by the HRA in addressing the Duck’s Nest. The children at this preschool have been identified in the report as the maximally exposed “sensitive receptors”. Environ concludes that if estimates of cancer risks are acceptable for this group of children just outside the fence line, then all is well. And of course, this is exactly what the consultants have rationalized. All too literally, the children at the Duck’s Nest have become the “canaries in the mine shaft”.

Environ is right to assume that the children at the facility and those living nearby are the most sensitive to exposure from airborne hazardous chemicals and consequent cancer risks. Early exposure to carcinogens may increase the incidence of adulthood cancers. These toxic burdens can also cause certain cancers to appear much earlier in life.

It’s unlikely that Environ knew much about the community monitoring team or their sampling efforts at several properties around the childcare facility, including the fence line to the play yard. These samples were collected at the end of last fall after the upgrades to the foundry’s emissions listed in the HRA had been put in place. Citizen monitoring data associated with the Duck’s Nest suggests an entirely different exposure scenario on site. Almost every sample revealed high levels of both manganese and nickel.

Certainly the best way to measure Environ’s cancer burden analysis of PSC is to provide body burden testing for all West Berkeley residents, especially for children exposed to the steel mill’s emissions. Many metals, like nickel, bio-accumulate. Blood and hair testing should be provided by the city, at no cost, to all those downwind within a mile of the foundry.

Undoubtedly, BAAQMD recognizes the many uncertainties that can result from exposure to such toxic emissions. The Air District has recently installed an air-monitoring trailer four blocks downwind of the foundry near the Duck’s Nest. Even though the Air District says it is merely studying regional air quality, make no mistake; it is Pacific Steel that is being monitored. Why else would BAAQMD make a $750,000 commitment of taxpayer money for such extensive monitoring if they really believe the cancer and chemical exposure estimates of the HRA and Environ?

Monitor West Berkeley Zoning

Duck’s Nest is no stranger to PSC and has had a long history with the foundry. The few attempts to monitor air quality in West Berkeley in the late 1980s were done in association with this preschool. The close proximity of Duck’s Nest to Pacific Steel was the driving force that mandated the first Health Risk Assessment of the foundry by the city’s Zoning Adjustment Board (ZAB) in 1991.

Since the HRA is a condition of Pacific Steel’s permit, ZAB now has a legal obligation to publicly review the new HRA after its approval by the Air District. This gives the city a legal opportunity to study and set new conditions for the foundry’s operating permit. A timetable and deadline for the long overdue odor management plan would be a good place to start. As the HRA points out, PSC no longer operates in a purely manufacturing district. A thorough examination of their permit by Zoning is long overdue.

Our city continues to play a game of obfuscation concerning PSC’s toxic legacy. More than anything else, this has perpetuated the city’s negligence to control Pacific Steel’s emissions. Recently, both Mayor Bates and Councilmember Linda Maio have voiced strong concerns regarding PSC emissions and their commitment to protect citizens downwind from the steel factory. The city has the authority to control the health and environmental impacts produced by Berkeley’s biggest polluter. Now is the time!

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