Steel Foundry Workers Rally Amidst Fears Of Layoffs

Protest Prompted by Possibility of City Council Investigation Into Foundry Emissions

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Fearing the possibility of layoffs, employees of a controversial steel foundry in West Berkeley held a rally Wednesday to protest an upcoming City Council item.

The Berkeley City Council is considering whether to investigate complaints against Pacific Steel Casting after receiving ongoing reports of noxious odors allegedly being emitted by the foundry.

Hundreds of the foundry's 670 union workers attended the rally Wednesday after hearing rumors that the City Council wanted to close the factory, said company spokesperson Elisabeth Jewel.

"It was completely impromptu. The company put out a whiteboard so workers could write messages to the City Council," Jewel said. "Word spread that there was this opportunity to get their voices around. It was amazing to see the heartfelt sentiments of hundreds of union workers."

Many union workers fear the possibility of losing their jobs and source of income if the company's permit is revoked, said Ignacio De La Fuente, Vice President of Union Local 164B, which represents the foundry's union workers.

"There will be so many job losses for minorities," he said. "I am so angry and we are going to force them to back off. The damage that the city has caused has already been done and it's irreversible. We're not going to let them forget it."

But Julie Sinai, senior aide to Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, said the item that will be discussed at Tuesday's City Council meeting will not look at closing the company.

"The item on the city's agenda is absolutely not to shut down Pacific Steel Casting. We will look at the conditions of the use permit and evaluate whether or not they (comply)," Sinai said. "This meeting will initiate the nuisance proceedings with respect to the use permit."

The city's zoning ordinance defines noxious smells and fumes as a nuisance.

The company has been the subject of several lawsuits regarding chemicals released in emissions and noxious odors.

Neighbors in surrounding West Berkeley raised concern about health issues they attribute to harmful fumes and chemical emissions, such as sore throats, headaches and respiratory difficulties.

To settle one suit, the company agreed to pay $150,000 in fines and spent millions making improvements to the foundry to improve emissions, Jewel said.

"The complaints directed towards the factory have reduced by nearly 47 percent since before, which is a big improvement," De La Fuente said.

Although an initial study by the foundry last year indicated the emissions met state regulations, a community monitoring project released last week said the emissions levels were hazardous.

If Pacific Steel Casting is found to be out of compliance with the legal standards, appropriate proceedings will take place, Sinai said.

De La Fuente said he plans to attend the City Council meeting with other union members and their families to present evidence in support of the factory and of the efforts by the foundry to improve the emissions.


Contact Esther Kim at [email protected]

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