Pacific Steel forges agreement with environmental group
Pacific Steel Casting in Berkeley has agreed to an extensive air pollution reduction program in a consent decree reached with Communities for a Better Environment, which sued the company under the federal Clean Air Act.
Pacific Steel has for years been suspected of causing a burning plastic smell that permeates much of Berkeley and Albany, and neighbors have worried that the company releases toxic air pollution.
The federal suit focused on emissions released into the air when molten metal is poured into sand molds. The two sides agreed to enter mediation after the suit was filed.
While the company did not admit liability for violating the Clean Air Act, it has agreed to a number of demands, including reducing air pollution by two tons over three years, paying $350,000 to fund air pollution reduction efforts for three years and using only clean scrap metal, which is used to make new steel. The company will pay Communities for a Better Environment $150,000 in attorney fees.
The company will also allow the group to inspect its scrap metal to make certain it does not contain lead, mercury, plastic, oil or dirt.
Pacific Steel and its union will meet with Communities for a Better Environment on a quarterly basis to talk about air pollution reduction measures.
"I think a lot of this happened from pressure from the community; it's been very strong," said Adrienne Bloch, staff attorney for Communities for a Better Environment. "The community has come together powerfully over the issue and called the company to the table and helped them to see they have to do something about this problem."
But the president of the union that represents 200 workers at the plant, Ignacio De La Fuente, who is also Oakland City Council president, called the community pressure "an unfair campaign against the company."
De La Fuente, a former steelworker who worked in the McAulay Foundry in Berkeley for 10 years, said the workers at the plant should be the test of whether the emissions from the plant are harmful.
"Our industry is not out of line with the mortality rates of any other industry," De La Fuente said. "We have thousands of members of our union in 13 or 14 foundries in the Bay Area retired who are 70 or 80 years old. I believe that Pacific Steel has invested resources to improve the quality of life of people inside the plant. It has never refused to deal with health issues or complaints."
Elisabeth Jewel, a spokeswoman for Pacific Steel, offered a more conciliatory response to on the settlement while reiterating the company's opinion that there are sources of air pollution in west Berkeley other than the plant.
"The settlement is an opportunity for the company to increase its commitment to reduce emissions and that's what it's going to do," Jewel said. "There are numerous sources of emissions in west Berkeley and certainly around where Pacific Steel operates. We've always maintained it isn't the only source."
Jewel said in addition to the requirements spelled out in the consent decree, Pacific Steel will look at using different binders in its sand mold process, begin updating some of the older carbon filters at two of its plants "and continue to work (on) air flow issues to ensure that everything goes through the emissions control equipment."