Pacific Steel Casting Odor Nuisance

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Pacific Steel Casting Odor Nuisance
L A Wood, February 12, 2008

Almost two years have elapsed since Pacific Steel Casting made its last appearance before the Berkeley Zoning Adjustment Board (ZAB). Back then, the foundry was being squeezed between constant odor complaints from residents and pending litigation. At tonight’s city council meeting, there will be a return to this issue. Representative Maio will be asking Council to refer Pacific Steel to ZAB because of the foundry’s ongoing nuisance problems.

As the story goes, Maio, while riding her bike over a mile from PSC was overwhelmed by the “burnt pot handle” smell, a description often used to identify the foundry’s noxious scent. She became nauseous from the encounter and now wants PSC to change. Maio’s council item states that the current BAAQMD complaint protocol “has not resulted in a sufficient reduction in odor”. The councilwoman is calling for an investigation of the continuing complaints and that ZAB find an appropriate remedy, if possible.

Odor nuisance has been a normal part of PSC operations in West Berkeley for as long as memory serves. In fact, the steel mill was once subject to a fifteen-year, court-imposed,  unconditional order to abate all odors. Unfortunately, during that time, the “no odor decree” was even violated by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD), which issues PSC’s air permit.

Triggered by extreme political pressure, this abatement decree was lifted in 2000 amidst a cloud of community protest. Even more egregious, in 1997 BAAQMD authorized the use of an incinerator at the foundry. This new emission source increased PSC’s odors in defiance of the court. Only the public seemed to object.

Historically, the court has been less than effective in regulating the odors and nuisance issues emanating from Pacific Steel. In 1991, the factory was required by the court to track and identify the sources of their odors. This was never completed by PSC, nor was there ever any follow up by the Air District or ZAB. Even as late as 2005, PSC and Air District representatives stood in front of residents at a large community meeting, seemingly baffled by the odor phenomenon.  They claimed that they had no idea what part of PSC’s operations generated the odor nuisance.

This is the political climate that has encouraged Air District to wave of the rules for odor nuisance and for Berkeley’s zoning board to follow in their steps of non-regulation. Even after residents were successful in a small claims nuisance lawsuit against PSC several months ago, ZAB has remained silent. Some believe Maio’s item will finally force ZAB to address its own responsibility to the foundry’s odor nuisance enforcement. However, if history is an indicator, residents should not wait with baited breath for much to happen.

PSC’s response to odor nuisance has evolved around the foundry’s introduction of carbon absorption technology. This abatement system was first offered up in 1985 to silence the many complaints about PSC’s Facility One, and again during 1991, in regard to Facility Two. Although these costly systems have satisfied the Air District’s request for this private company to take action, the record shows that this carbon absorption technology has only had a moderate degree of success at odor abatement. Testimony to this fact is that both foundries one and two have continued to generate many odor complaints.


Pacific Steel Castings: Mixing Steel and Politics.
Berkeley CA February 12, 2008
Several hundred Pacific Steel workers rallied outside the Berkeley City Council to lobby for their employer and against the loss of their jobs. The video begins with a short news brief broadcast on Channel 7 on February 6th. The West Berkeley Company had been asked to council to answer for its failure to put in place effective measures to abate it foundry's industrial odors.

In late 2005, continual odor complaints drove Pacific Steel to announce the installation of a third odor abatement system. This new system required ZAB’s approval prior to its installation. Like prior abatement systems, the community questioned whether the proposed equipment was adequate to effectively curb PSC’s odor nuisance. It quickly became obvious that Berkeley’s zoning board members had their marching orders. ZAB spent little time discussing this, or any other concerns about PSC at the hearing. The community should have figured out that the political fix was in when five Air District staffers made an unprecedented appearance at ZAB’s hearing.

Several weeks ago, Mayor Bates publicly confessed that in fact he had “fast-tracked” the permit for the odor equipment. He must now know that he also tracked around any meaningful community debate in a heavy-handed style reminiscent of past PSC hearings. It was even reported that the city allowed PSC to move forward with their site construction before ZAB’s approval. Moreover, the zoning board was warned that the new system probably wouldn’t solve the foundry’s odor problems. So ZAB should not be surprised that the odor nuisance has resurfaced yet again.

The steel company claims that odor complaints are down, but nearby citizens say that this should be blamed on an ineffectual complaint process. It doesn’t take long for those new to the complaint protocol to realize that calling has little impact when quite often they end up talking to an answering machine in San Francisco. The lack of nighttime and weekend availability of inspectors also contributes to fewer confirmed complaints. Some residents report that BAAQMD inspectors have lost patience with downwind complainers and their repeated calls. Another factor in the lowered call rate is that PSC has shifted many of its operations to night shifts. Like many dirty industries, has now become a midnight polluter.

Ignacio De La FuenteAir District Director Jack Broadbent stated that Berkeley’s zoning process, which has allowed the co-location of industry and housing, is the real source of the problem. He is right to point the finger at ZAB for the failures of PSC. Ultimately, ZAB has the final say over operations of the foundry and a special responsibility to protect the health of residents in West Berkeley. It’s time to bring the accountability for the odor complaint process back to Berkeley. ZAB should restructure PSC’s use permit and demand an odor management plan that actually results in a significant reduction of odors.

Pacific Steel has invested much time and money for various odor abatement technologies in an attempt to shield the foundry from public scrutiny and the courts. However, its first line of defense has always been political. This was most evident last week when Oakland councilmember Ignacio De La Fuente rallied workers outside the Berkeley foundry with some old-time saber rattling.

Bullhorn in hand, De La Fuente shouted that any changes in the use permit will lead to the steel mill closing its doors and the loss of union jobs. This cry of “Wolf!” has been used too many times to ward off all discussions of the foundry’s impacts on the surrounding neighborhood. PSC’s odor problem is more than just a nuisance.  It is also about community health and the public’s right to know!

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