Odorous History of Pacific Steel Casting

Activist Demands Scrutiny of Foundry
Marc Albert,  Berkeley Voice, May 27, 1999

Last Thursday, Miriam Kaminsky held her nose during a softball game. It wasn't because her daughter's team was losing. According to Kaminsky, both teams, about 30 girls, from the Berkeley-Albany girl's softball league spent much of the game covering their noses and trying to stay upwind of an insidious smell. Described as that of a burning pot handle, the odor has been a fact of life for northwest Berkeley and Albany residents and a known quantity to state regulators for years.

"All the kids were complaining about it, all the parents were smelling it, it was a really heavy stench. There was really nowhere you could move to get out of it. One of the coaches thought it was a train burning its breaks. But I knew what it was." Kaminsky said.

The game was played at Fielding Field, a stretch of industrial land near Albany Village converted to a playing field by sports enthusiasts. The source of the smell is the 65-year-old Pacific Steel Casting metal foundry a few blocks away. At the factory at Second and Gilman streets, 350 well-paid union workers fabricate metal parts for machinery and industry. The plant was recently awarded a commendation by the city for staying put, and keeping its well-paid, moderately skilled jobs in Berkeley.

In many ways the case is emblematic of land-use and environmental struggles throughout the country. Land-use patterns are changing, and every year more housing developments and recreational destinations are approved along the edges of Berkeley's shrinking industrial quarter.

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District says the public shouldn't be concerned with the unpleasant odor. The smell is associated with organic compounds which smell bad, but aren't particularly harmful. According to the agency the sources of concern -- burning nickel, cadmium and other metals‹ are odorless, and releases are far below levels considered to be dangerous.

The reassurance of regulators is hardly soothing to Kaminsky, who along with neighborhood groups has fought the factory since at least the early 1980s.

"Pacific Steel is putting thousands of pounds of waste into the air each year," she charged, "including nickel, chromium and manganese, which are known carcinogens and toxins. I don't believe this terrible stench of burning metal is harmless."

In I998, the plant won permission to burn off some of its waste at the site." The incinerator went on line about a year ago and regulators say, the operation is cleaner now than it was before.

Environmental activist L A Wood says there's more than meets the nose. Wood maintains that the incinerator is not just a malodorous nuisance, but a genuine public health concern.

By comparing the permit issued by BAAQMD for the incinerator, which the agency calls a "fluidized bake oven" with numbers prior to its installation, a picture begins to emerge. The incinerator alone puts out 2.5-tons of particulates, .7 tons of nitrogen oxide, a key ingredient of smog, and 1.5 tons of carbon dioxide annually.

But as Ted Hull, a BAAQMD air quality engineer contends, the amounts are inconsequential. "Even a small internal combustion engine would emit more than that (amount of nitrogen oxide). That's less than 10 pounds a day. We wouldn't consider that a lot."

Wood insists the air district fully investigate plant emissions and study cumulative health effects. According to him, the board's ruling that the company's emissions are within all regulatory standards is a misnomer. Wood charges that the board overlooks cumulative effects of various pollutants on human health.

"They are losing the forest for the trees. Pacific Steel Casting is one of the biggest dischargers into Alameda County air and the air board is treating them like a mom and pop cleaners."

But according to the BAAQMD, the state agency charged with regulating air pollution, the smells may be unpleasant, but the odor itself is not a public health problem.

"The existence of an odor problem does not necessarily correspond with a health risk," said Brian Bateman, who leads the district's toxics division. The odor, described by the air board as similar to a burning pothandle, is created when organic compounds in metal forms are burned.

Numerous complaints of public nuisance in the early 1980's prompted the district to act. The agency forced the company to install an efficient incinerator and raise the height of its smokestack. A higher stack disperses pollutants over a wider area, but in lower concentrations. "There hasn't been any specific complaint, and no public nuisance or notice of violation in at least six years," said BAAQMD supervisor Richard Lew, "The odor was a lot, lot worse before."

But neighborhood groups insist the mix of industry and homes is inappropriate for an incinerator. Wood and Kaminsky say the factory is within 1,008 feet of a day-care center. Wood complains that a public hearing required before stacks are located near schools was never held, though the factory predates the school and the law.

Wood also charges that the complaint process is too circuitous for the community. "They have to have three people call in one hour and only then they'll come out and take some air sampling. The community is burned out on the regulatory process."

Wood wants constant monitoring of the plant's emissions.

"The last time there was any talk about the health effects was 10 years ago," he said. Wood said the company is allowed to burn 10,000 tons of material annually, and the board won't study cumulative health effects.

"Their main emission's nickel," Bateman countered, "but again they are within established limits. It's a well-controlled plant." Bateman said his agency doesn't commission health risk studies unless scientists estimate the health risk at over one cancer in 100,000 people over a 70-year period. Pacific Steel Castings is below that level.

"I'm not sure where Mr. Wood is coming from," said company spokeswoman Christine Chan, " I'm not sure what he is talking about.

"Since (the 1980's) we have done a lot. We were the first company in the country to put in a carbon filtration for the emissions before it is released from our plant. The company has been working within its permit. I don't know what we can do to convince Mr. Wood that we are a health and safety conscious company."

Neighbors Raise Stink over Odors: Air Quality Officials Downplay Dispute over Pacific Steel Castings Berkeley Judith Scherr,  Daily Planet, June 13, 1999

Local activists say Pacific Steel Castings is making more than metal widgets. They say the toxic substances emitted by the 65-year old foundry on Second Street may be making them sick.

But Bay Area Air Quality Management District spokesperson Lucia Libretti downplays the concerns. "The problem is less serious than breathing car and truck emissions, just from crossing the street," she said in an interview Friday.

A hearing board is looking at the question of emissions that go into the air after passing through a cleansing process that some call a "bake oven" and others call an incinerator. PSC makes casts of sand and glue and disposes of them by putting them in the bake oven/incinerator.

Libretti called the panel of five, appointed by the air district, a "quasi-judicial body" made up of experts and lay people who are not air district employees."They serve as a resource for BAAQMD," she said.

The board held a hearing with activists and PSC representatives Tuesday evening. The hearing will be continued in July. A date has not been set.

A spokesperson from PSC was not available for comment Friday.

The hearings were set up when the foundry asked the air district to lift an Unconditional Abatement Order, imposed on it in 1985 after numerous complaints from the neighborhood. The air district's strict order forces the company to stay within "acceptable" levels of emissions. "(PSC) spent over $2 million to abate odors in the neighborhood. Since 1991, they haven't had any violation notices. There have been 120 complaints and 20 were confirmed," Libretti said.

PSC put in a new piece of equipment last year to burn even more of its waste so that less gets hauled to the landfill. "The district is not opposed to having (the abatement order) lifted, given (PSC's) compliance record," Libretti said.

Community activists, however, are concerned about the emissions coming from the new piece of equipment. They claim the foundry emits dangerous particles that include carbon monoxide and potentially dangerous metals including chromium and nickel.

They want the Unconditional Abatement Order to be maintained, and they want to get answers to questions about the emissions and their impact on the health of people in Berkeley.

"We have no clue about the (exact) constituents of sand emissions," said L A Wood, who has been working with a group of concerned citizens.

Wood said the group wants the air district to place ambient air stations strategically around Berkeley to measure the contents of emissions and to examine what toxins are in the soil. "We're asking for an independent toxicologist to look at the problem," Wood said.

Libretti, however, said officials know what the emissions are because the substances that go into the oven are known. Further, she argued, the district already has monitor stations in Richmond.

Libretti said that when five complaints are made to the district in a 24 -hour period, an inspector comes out and talks to the complaining party and confirms, by smelling, that there is in fact an odor. Libretti characterized most of the odors emitted by the PSC plant as "fleeting."

She said it's not comparable to being near a refinery. The activists say odors are a problem, but they are just one of the concerns.

"Odors are only part of the issue. It's what you don't smell," Wood said.

City Council Calls for Inquiry into Local Steel Plant's Emissions
Christine Fu,  Daily Californian, September 16, 1999

The Berkeley City Council requested this week that a Bay Area environmental agency investigate a local steel production company.

The City Council moved on Tuesday to recommend that the Bay Area Air Quality Management District determine the amount of pollution being emitted from West Berkeley's Pacific Steel Casting Company, according to air quality district spokesperson John Selawsky. (Note: John Selawsky is a city of Berkeley commissioner)

The air quality agency plans to conduct on-site air and soil testing to determine whether the company's chemical output endangers human health, Selawsky said.

Pacific Steel Casting manufactures steel casts, or heavy steel parts, for the trucking and oil industries.

"There is a need for more air control, and a cumulative screening of air quality is needed for the quarter mile surrounding the Pacific Steel Casting," Selawsky said.

The city's recommendation followed the community environmental advisory group's decision to ask the Bay Area air quality agency to evaluate the impact of the steel plant's emissions on human health.

But Pacific Steel Casting spokesperson Christina Chan said the company does not produce harmful chemical emissions.

The PSC is confident that there are no health risks and that living in West Berkeley is no more dangerous than living anywhere else," she said.

Chan said the casting company is planning to cooperate fully with the regional air quality agency's investigation.

But Nabil Al-Hadithy, manager of Berkeley's toxic management division, said the industrial area of West Berkeley has a history of high pollution.

Complaints from West Berkeley residents resulted in City Council actions eight years ago, he added. At the time, the council passed a measure that required industrial plants like Pacific Steel Casting to install anti-pollution devices.

An uproar arose when the casting company requested the removal of the abatement order, said Al-Hadithy.

As a result, two public hearings were held, attracting the attention of community activists like L A Wood, who said that the Bay Area air quality agency must take action on pollution caused by the steel company. "The Bay Area Air Quality Management District needs to be more progressive and begin to conduct all-encompassing air quality investigation," Wood said.

A blood test conducted on West Berkeley resident Shay Stephens showed her blood contained many toxic chemicals, including arsenic, chromium, nickel, and formaldehyde, according to Wood. "There is a definite need for a multi-facility and holistic approach to air quality control," Wood said. "The BAAQMD needs to be more futuristic and begin to include multiple facility screenings in conjunction with single plant investigations for health risks in the area of Oceanview and Albany."

The Bay Area air quality group has already done preliminary research the chemicals that may present a health risk to humans, Al-Hadithy said.

"So far there is no indication that there are any risks or threats to the community, but in order to alleviate the public's concern we will do an air sampling and further investigation," he said.

Pacific Steel Casting Remains Under Scrutiny
Judith Scherr,  Berkeley Daily Planet, September 22, 1999

The City Council has added its voice to those of West Berkeley and Albany citizens who are concerned about adverse health affects allegedly caused by emissions from Pacific Steel Casting facilities in West Berkeley.

During last week's meeting, the counci1 asked the city manager to write to the Bay Area Air Quality District, asking the agency "to provide an independent, facility screening evaluation of human health risks for all Pacific Steel Casting facilities in Berkeley."

The board has been conducting a series of hearings, relative to odors emitted from the plant. The hearing panel has permitted testimony with respect to smells only. People who attempted to testify to perceived health impacts were told that testimony was inappropriate for purposes of the panel's investigation.

This study requested by the council, therefore would address those health questions that the panel did not address.

Environmental activist LA. Wood asked councilmembers to go beyond this resolution. He wanted them to ask the air board for a study of all the various emissions and their health affects in west Berkeley. "To only evaluate PSC emissions when its neighbors on adjacent properties also discharge large quantities of similar emissions is extremely shortsighted and says virtually nothing about actual air quality in the immediate area," he said in a letter to the council.

The council, however, declined to take action on the broader question and resolved only to ask the air district to address the health affects of PSC emissions.

The BAAQMD will continue its public hearing on odors emitted from PSC tonight at 6 p.m. at the State Health Department Auditorium, 2151 Berkeley Way.

Draft Report Not Released to Public
Judith Scherr,  Berkeley Daily Planet, January 5, 2000

The Bay Area Air Qua1ity Management Board hearing panel will be discussing its October decision on Pacific Steel Castings Thursday.The deliberations are open to the public, though the public may not be able to understand what the discussions are about.That is because no member of the public is permitted to view the document on which the deliberations will be based.

The document in question is a draft decision, written by BAAQMD's hearing panel, a body independent of BAAQMD. The summer hearings on PSC's request to lift a 1984 Unconditional Odor Abatement Order, brought out dozens of West Berkeley and Albany residents who contend the odor coming from the plant is noxious.

The panel held three hearings in Berkeley, listening both to residents' complaints and to PSC's response. Community members asked the panel to keep the abatement order in place. PSC argued that the number of complaints never amounted to a violation -- five verified complaints on a single incident constitute a violation and that no one had proved the odors were coming from the plant rather than from nearby industries. PSC attorneys concluded that the 1984 order --which carries hefty fines for violations -- should be lifted.

On Oct. 28 the hearing panel rendered a decision: The order would be lifted, but certain conditions would be imposed for a year. The hearing panel put the decision and its conditions into a draft decision and in the middle of December and sent copies to the BAAQMD and PSC.

Mary Romaidis, Deputy Clerk of the Boards, said she was unable to provide the Daily Planet or the public with a copy of the draft decision because "it's like going to court' and having a draft decision made by a judge. "You don't want a draft copy circu1ated," she said.

Emeryville City Councilmember Greg Harper, a member of the BAAQMD, was surprised that the public would not have access to the document. He thought the BAAQMD counsel, Robert Kwong, might facilitate making it available, but Kwong said that because the document came from the hearing panel, he could not provide it to the public.

Both PSC and the Air Quality Management Board wrote letters to the hearing panel, objecting to the decision. These letters are part of the public record and were given to the Daily Planet. Although the public will not be privy to the basis on which the discussion will be held and will not be permitted to comment --deliberations are among panelists and the meeting is not a public hearing -- the public may attend.

Berkeley resident L A Wood tried unsuccessfully to obtain a copy of the draft decision. In response, he shot off a letter to the panel, which said, in part "let it be said that this kind of backroom decision process invalidates the public deliberation process and defeats the notion of public participation envisioned by our legislators."

Odorous Order: Air Quality Board Places New Conditions on Foundry
Judith Scherr, Berkeley Daily Planet, January 10, 2000

Over the objections of two of its five members, the Bay Area Air Quality Hearing Board ruled Thursday to impose new conditions on a west Berkeley foundry.

According to the order, Pacific Steel Castings must:

Hold at least two community meetings to address citizen concerns and to explain efforts to reduce odor nuisances.

Submit a report by Sept. 1 to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District and the hearing panel "detailing all complaints received by PSC between Oct. 28, 1999 and Sept. 1, 2000"

Include the results of the community meetings and actions taken by PSC in response in the report.

The hearing board will make a decision by Oct. 1, determining whether to continue the conditional abatement order or lift it.

At issue was a 1984 order by the air district for PSC to abate odor complaints. Having installed new equipment and having not received any violation notices for two years, PSC asked BAAQMD to lift its order, which imposes hefty fines when violated.

PSC clean upThree hearings were held in Berkeley over the summer, where citizens testified that odor problems - "the smell of burning pot handles" - persist, albeit, the objectionable odor occurred less frequently than it had in the 1980s, some said.

Although PSC's attorney had argued that the lack of public nuisance violations against the company showed that the odor had been abated, the hearing board took the citizens' concerns into account in rendering its decision Thursday.

Moreover, the report slammed the district's method of determining a violation, although the hearing panel has no jurisdiction over changing the methodology.

The Hearing Board report - denied to the public in the draft form discussed at the meeting, but available to the public from the BAAQMD Hearing Board in its final form - took note of specific public testimony.

The report said that Peter Holloway testified that he did not know where to complain about an odor after hours; L A Wood said it was a burden to require five verified complaints per noxious odor in order to declare an official violation; James Miles testified that the person complaining had to wait at home until a staff person from the district arrived.

"Once a resident learns where to go, the complaint process is a tedious one," the report says. "It is a heavy burden to place on residents to expect them to repeatedly call and complain and wait for an inspector."

The report concludes that "the Hearing Board is persuaded that the evidence and testimony presented show that the district's policy and procedures for citizen odor complaints may not accurately reflect actual odor emission occurrences and hence nuisance."

One of the hearing panel members, Larry Milnes, asked for a delay in the proceedings, because he had just received a revised copy of the draft document and hadn't time to read it. He was overruled by the chair, Alvin Greenberg.

Another of the hearing panel members, Antoinette Stein, had previously argued that since citizens still complained of odors and since they found problems with the district's reporting process, the Unconditional Order for Abatement should not be dropped.

She wrote a dissenting opinion. "It is therefore especially important that the Unconditional Order for Abatement not be lifted at this time, since it should remain in place as a tool for citizens to use to fully rectify odor nuisance problems that Pacific Steel Casting fails to recognize" she wrote.

The air board's objections to the hearings were also dismissed by the chair. The BAAQMD attorney said that the hearing board was exceeding its authority by instituting new conditions, when the hearings had simply been on whether the unconditional order to abate should be maintained or dropped.

Greenberg, however, said the Hearing Board was within its rights to write a Conditional Order for Abatement for the foundry.

PSC has previously said it would challenge the imposition of new conditions. Neither the PSC general manager nor its attorneys responded to the Daily Planet's request for comment for this story.

Delsol of PSCFoundry continues to concern neighbors
Judith Scherr , March 17, 2000

A handful of residents concerned about odors they say are emitted from the Second Street Pacific Steel Castings foundry showed up Wednesday evening at a public meeting hosted by managers of the 66-year-old plant. Holding two public forums this year is one of the conditions imposed on PSC by a Bay Area Air Quality Management Board hearing panel, when it removed a more stringent Abatement Order imposed on the foundry since 1984.

The second meeting will take place some time in April.

Several of the neighbors in attendance underscored their support for the 'foundry and said they were especially pleased that Chief Executive Officer Robert Delsol addressed the meeting, even though he was unable to stay for the question-and-answer session that followed. They also praised the new filtration system for having significantly reduced odors. At the same time, people in attendance said they continue to be concerned about odors that they believed were emitted by the plant.

"We appreciate the fact that Pacific Steel is in our neighborhood. We appreciate the economic activity, like having real work and not paper shuffling," said northwest Berkeley resident Paul Cox in his remarks at the meeting. Cox said, however, that he continued to experience "episodic" odors. "How much of your product is getting filtered? Clearly it is not everything," he said.

Christine Chan, environmental engineer and PSC spokesperson, responded that 90 percent of the combustible material goes through the filtration system, resulting in less-than-detectable odors. It is not known if the reported odors come from the plant or from one of a number of nearby industries, Chan said. She also explained that the facility without a filter - one of the company's three facilities - releases a very low level of emissions, making a filter unnecessary.

The discussion turned to criticism of the Bay Area Air Quality

District's process through which the public makes official complaints about odor nuisances.

For the district to "confirm" an odor complaint, five people need to call the district about it and an inspector needs to verify the complaints. "It's rare that an inspector makes it to my house within an hour," said Avery Beer, who said he has been making complaints for years. By the time the inspector gets there, the odor has dissipated.

Beer said that he gets headaches as a result of the odor and asked for more information about the toxic effects of the emissions. "I wouldn't give a hoot about the smell unless there was concern about toxicity," he said.

Mark Murray, from the public relations firm of Wong and Murray, who was moderating the meeting, was quick to remind attendees that the subject under discussion was odor and not toxicity.

The plant is in Councilmember Linda Maio's district. Maio attended the meeting and expressed her surprise at the small number of people present. She told Chan that at constituent meetings, concerns with odors from the plant are frequently raised to her.

Maio said her office got notice of the meeting only the day before the Wednesday meeting. While Cox said he had got notice of the meeting the Friday before, others who had attended last year's hearings on PSC said they had received noPSC protest notice at all.

Berkeley Children Deserve Clean Air March
Berkeley, CA, February 21, 2009

West Berkeley Neighbors came out in force today to protest the ongoing pollution emissions problems at Pacific Steel Castings in Berkeley. The rally and march to the 2nd Street foundry was sponsored by Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, Global Community Monitor and many other local groups including the Healthy Air Coalition


Berkeley MARCH FOR CLEAN AIR February 21, 2009
<For MORE> March for clean air

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