Pacific Steel Odor Problems Persist, Despite Complaints

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With her head out the window and nose in the air, West Berkeley resident Janice Schroeder circled the area around her home one day in 1980 with an air inspector, tracing a distinct, noxious odor. Driving in concentric circles, the smell strengthened, and Schroeder's headache and nausea worsened. The two drove until they could circle no more and stopped on 2nd Street in front of the Pacific Steel Casting Company facility.

"That's how I knew where it was coming from," Schroeder said.

Thirty years later, Schroeder finds herself in the same position, calling the Bay Area Air Quality Management District to file complaints for an unresolved odor issue, despite the implementation of various technological improvements to eliminate odor emissions at the steel plant.

Although the number of complaints has decreased in recent years, odors still linger within the surrounding neighborhood and the possible - though unsupported - health risks attributed to Pacific Steel's emissions remain a concern, motivating some community members to sniff out the science behind the odors themselves.

"(The community has) been vigilant," said Councilmember Linda Maio, whose district includes the steel facility. "They have a healthy skepticism which ... has helped us really be forceful with the air district."

In 2002, some residents, including Schroeder, noticed an increase in odors - which reached a peak two years later - prompting them to organize the West Berkeley Alliance for Clean Air and Safe Jobs in 2005. The group, along with other community members, has since then tracked the emissions and measures taken by the air district and Pacific Steel to mitigate the odors.

In response to residents' concerns, the air district, Pacific Steel and the city held community meetings, established monitoring projects - including a permanent monitoring station at 6th and Camelia streets - and implemented emission reduction plans such as the Odor Management Plan, which came out of a 2005 settlement between the district and the company.

Over the last five years, Pacific Steel has spent millions of dollars upgrading the plant and implementing the Odor Management Plan, said Elisabeth Jewel, spokesperson for Pacific Steel.

Yet a lack of transparency and an apparent unwillingness to work with residents has created a level of distrust, as several efforts by the group and other community members to reach out to the air district, the steel plant and the city of Berkeley have been overlooked.

"I don't know how they can be satisfied," Jewel said.

While working on a 2007 study with Global Community Monitor, a nonprofit organization that conducts air monitoring projects with community members, Berkeley resident L A Wood said he had to make assumptions about when Pacific Steel was operating because the company refused to reveal their production hours.

Jewel said it would be difficult to notify the community of the facility's operation hours because the schedule varies frequently, adding that it is not "the normal course of business" to release the schedule, though air district officials said they know when Pacific Steel is in production.

Nonetheless, Wood said the study, which was funded by a $25,000 grant from the air district, showed the levels of manganese and nickel were a "serious problem" in the area. However, the air district invalidated the findings of the study, noting that the methodologies used and the limited data were not sufficient to attribute any health risks to Pacific Steel's emissions.

"The air district is truly on a defensive mode with us and has always been," Wood said. He added that the community had to educate itself due to a lack of transparency on the part of the air district, Pacific Steel and the Berkeley City Council.

While regularly talking with the company and the air district - of which Mayor Tom Bates is vice-chair - Maio, who has been on the council since 1992, said she sends an e-mail to a Pacific Steel mailing list when there is valuable information to share, but usually only one or two people respond.

"I report what I think are the things that are really improving and happening," she said. "The measure of the success is whether or not we continue to get complaints. That's the only parameter I have."

Whether the complaint process is the best way to evaluate the effectiveness of odor reduction measures remains unclear. Schroeder said it is "incredibly time-consuming and very depressing," adding that sometimes inspectors have a cold or wear strong fragrances, inhibiting their ability to smell the odor emissions.

But air district and city officials said the community plays a large and important role in addressing the odors.

"They're a big part of the process," said Wayne Kino, air quality program manager in the compliance and enforcement division for the district.

Still, some feel the council, especially Bates and Maio, could be doing more to involve the community in discussions with the district and company.

"City Council has backed away from making those relationships possible, and it could be better," said Ruth Breech, program director for Global Community Monitor. "I have higher hopes for Berkeley."


Stephanie Baer is the lead city government reporter. Contact her at [email protected]

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