Pacific Steel Casting in Berkeley has agreed to voluntarily reduce noxious odors coming from its 2nd Street plants in the face of a City Council proposal to declare it a public nuisance.
After receiving a letter on Tuesday from Pacific Steel General Manager Joe Emmerichs agreeing to "cut odor and emissions while producing superior steel castings," Berkeley City Councilwoman Linda Maio pulled her proposal from consideration at the start of the council meeting.
Pacific Steel has said it would have to shut down and lay off 640 workers if the city went through with its formal nuisance proceedings to alter its use permit. Those proceedings could take time and end up in court.
"They are letting us know the use permit route is harmful to them, but they want to collaborate on an agreement that will still get us there," said Maio, whose West Berkeley district includes the plant. "I don't want a drawn-out process. There could be many public hearings, appeals and lawsuits, and it could be messy."
Maio said it has taken the city 20 years or more to get to the point of nuisance proceedings because the state of California, with its Bay Area Air Quality Management District, was first in line to get the steel foundry to clean up its act. Now that it has concluded a lawsuit that resulted in some environmental changes at the plant, the city gets its turn, Maio said.
Maio said she favors a negotiated plan with Pacific Steel because it will be faster, and the threat of starting nuisance proceedings can be held over its head in case it doesn't live up to the agreement. Emmerichs, who brought about 250 union members to Tuesday night's City Council meeting to urge the city not to start nuisance proceedings, said "no comment" when asked whether he had cut a deal with the city to avoid the proceedings.
According to Mayor Tom Bates, Pacific Steel was told before the meeting that the item to start nuisance proceedings would be pulled because the city received the letter agreeing to negotiate. Bates wondered aloud during the meeting why the steel company brought its union members to the Tuesday meeting anyway.
"We met with Pacific Steel on Friday, and we said we are pulling this item and you show up with all these people to harangue us," Bates said.
In its letter, Pacific Steel claimed it already has laid off 30 workers because some of its customers have gotten wind of the proposal to tamper with its use permit and have gone elsewhere.
"To say that there are 30 jobs lost already because of this is so much b.s. I can't believe it," Bates said at the meeting.
During a tour of the plant last week, Emmerichs said business is down because one of the truck manufacturers it makes steel parts for designed a newer model of truck that costs more and that fewer people are buying.
He also said any changes to its use permit that would cause it to reduce hours of production would hurt business.
Ignacio De La Fuente, vice president of the West Coast Glass Molders International Union and president of the Oakland City Council, came to the City Council meeting as well.
"The reality is that Pacific Steel Casting has spent millions and millions of dollars improving conditions at the plants," De La Fuente said. "We need to keep good union jobs here."
Maio said her intention was never to shut down the plant or to put people out of work.
"Now we have their attention," Maio said. "(Nuisance proceedings) are our leverage point. I've been saying all along I don't want to jeopardize their contracts and lose jobs."
Maio said Pacific Steel has shared with her plans to change what is called an aromatic compound that is used to hold its sand steel molds together. Called phenol, it is probably what people are smelling when it gets hot as molten metal is poured into the molds, she said.