About 20 members of the community — mostly from West Berkeley — and two City Councilwomen gathered Dec. 14 at the La Quinta Inn to hear a presentation from Bay Area Air Quality Management District officials about revising a permit for an aging plant owned by Pacific Steel Casting Company.
Residents have long been concerned about odors and other pollutants emanating from Pacific Steel Casting on Second Street, lodging hundreds of complaints with local and regional bodies. District officials have noted numerous violations over the decades.
According to the West Berkeley Alliance for Clean Air and Safe Jobs, a group of volunteers that serves as a citizen watchdog group, the community has voiced concerns about health risks and smells as early as 1975. Since then, members of the group have sought to hold Pacific Steel, Berkeley, and the Air District accountable for what they claim are dangerous emissions, odors, and health risks caused by the Pacific Steel.
Of the three plants it operates in West Berkeley, one is not currently covered under the company’s Synthetic Minor Operating Permit or SMOP. The Air District notified Pacific Steel in 2005 that the company needed to apply for a permit that would cover all three plants.
In 2005 we told [Pacific Steel], you have to include all of those emissions in your SMOP and then we will determine if you are still eligible to be a SMOP,” said Air District Principal Air Quality Engineer Nicholas Maiden. “If not … then they will have to take more limits, more enforceable conditions, otherwise you will have to get a Title V permit.”
If Pacific Steel Casting did not apply for a permit revision, it would have to operate under a Title V permit, which allows significantly greater emissions from the facilities, but is more expensive. For example, the SMOP permit allows 89 tons of carbon monoxide to be expelled by the plant every year, versus 370 tons with a Title V. But Title V permits cost more per ton of regulated pollutant compared with a SMOP, for example.
Air district officials have taken nearly a decade to move the application process forward because, among other things, there have been ownership changes. Pacific Steel Casting was owned by one family for more than 90 years but was taken over by an investment fund in 2014.
“Due to the complexity of the facility, quantifying emissions and developing enforceable permit conditions with monitoring, record-keeping, and reporting requirements took several years to complete,” Maiden told Berkeleyside in an email.
Pacific Steel makes carbon, low-alloy and stainless steel castings for U.S. and international customers, largely for heavy-duty trucks and construction equipment.
The revised permit would require quarterly reporting and monitoring of emissions levels — Pacific Steel will be required to keep daily records. Permit holders are to self-report any violations within ten days. Plant one, which the revised permit would cover, was opened in the 1930s.
The revised permit is set to go into effect about 60 to 90 days after the comment period closes January 17, 2017 — during which time the Air District will review and respond to in writing. Officials may elect to revise the permit as a result of the received comments. The current revised permit has “numerous deadlines” for the “various requirements” to go into effect, according to an email from Maiden.
The two-part meeting began with a formal presentation and public comment period that was filmed for the public record. The second portion began with a presentation but ended up a loosely moderated town hall discussion.
During the recorded formal public comment portion, several members of the West Berkeley Alliance for Clean Air and Safe Jobs aired a lengthy list of grievances with both Pacific Steel Casting and how the Air District has approached the permitting process. Members of the group also claimed that emissions are worsening.
On the group’s website, the West Berkeley Alliance lists a chronological history of the plant and the concerns dating back to 1934, when Pacific Steel was built. Over the years the Alliance has sought to pressure the city, the Air District, and Pacific Steel to address its documented concerns about emissions, health risks, and odors related to the three plants. It has successfully managed to pressure the Air District and city into forcing Pacific Steel to take some action to mitigate pollutants and odors, such as installing carbon absorption filter on one of the plants, and other changes to the materials and products used at the plants.
During the second portion of the meeting, a mother from West Berkeley told officials she was worried about her children playing outdoors — a concern echoed by several other parents in attendance.
Discussing the smell, one parent said, “I’m not sure what the monitoring systems are capturing or not capturing, but there is obviously something there. I’m also scared for my children who are very young, and I don’t let them outside when I smell that. This is in the Bay Area and this is unacceptable.”
Officials responded by pointing out that in addition to the monitoring already underway, the district is building out its network of sensors on an ongoing basis. And, to address the odor, officials said that as part of Pacific Steel’s permit, it’s required to look for “less odorous” methods of production.
Of the community members present, the vast majority expressed concerns over odors emitted by the three plants, as well as particulate matter and other pollutants.
City Councilwoman Linda Maio, who represents the area, circulated a list of questions for Air District officials and attendees. “We did actually, thanks to the community and the work we did, we installed a carbon absorption system on plant three, which had the most activity,” Maio said. “And there’s a monitor there, and that’s 24/7, so that plant actually is pretty much under control. But plants one and two don’t have control technologies like that … I want to know what we can do to capture emissions on plants one and two, and in particular plant one, because they are very old.”
Officials said that said issues Maio raised with the two plants would be addressed within three years.
Recently elected District Two Councilwoman Cheryl Davila said, “I can’t even open my windows on the San Pablo side, so I’m wondering if there’s more monitoring — it seems like we need more, and with all those new construction (projects) right there by the freeway, they’ve been notices and told not to open their windows.”
Officials said that the Bay Area has 35 monitoring stations, which is more than “most states” but even still they are always expanding the network.
Pacific Steel did not attend the event and did not return several telephone messages requesting comment.
Residents who did not attend the meeting can email Maiden with official comments.
Pacific Steel has seen its share of trouble in recent years. An Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid in 2011 led to 200 undocumented workers losing their jobs. Three years later, after the company declared bankruptcy, the family-owned business was sold to the private equity firm Speyside Equity.
The Genger family opened the business in 1934 and ran it for four generations.
The company appears to be on better financial footing, and announced two acquisitions in November.
West Berkeley’s Pacific Steel sold to equity firm (07.31.14)
West Berkeley’s Pacific Steel files for bankruptcy (03.13.14)
Peaceful Pacific Steel protest ends at West Berkeley plant (02.17.12)
Hundreds rally in Berkeley to protest Pacific Steel layoffs (02.17.12)
Pacific Steel accused of labor violations in lawsuit (12.27.11)
200 undocumented Pacific Steel workers lose their jobs (12.19.11)
Pay raise, no added health costs in Pacific Steel contract (03.28.11)
Workers at Berkeley’s Pacific Steel accept new contract (03.25.11)
Negotiations resume in Pacific Steel strike (03.23.11)
Workers from Berkeley’s Pacific Steel go on strike (03.21.11)
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