Bay Area Air Quality District Under Fire

Critics blame weak regulation and lack of enforcement

By Vicky Nguyen, Liz Wagner and Felipe Escamilla
|  Wednesday, Nov 13, 2013  |  Updated 11:41 PM PDT
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Critics blame the Bay Area Air Quality Management District for using outdated standards to assess toxic harm from industrial fires, following the fire at Sims Metal Management's Redwood City metal shredding facility. Investigative Reporter Vicky Nguyen examines the air district's enforcement history and why critics say weak regulation puts public health at risk. This story aired on November 13, 2013.

Critics blame the Bay Area Air Quality Management District for using outdated standards to assess toxic harm from industrial fires, following the fire at Sims Metal Management's Redwood City metal shredding facility. Investigative Reporter Vicky Nguyen examines the air district's enforcement history and why critics say weak regulation puts public health at risk. This story aired on November 13, 2013.

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Air district regulators are under fire from critics who blame regulators for using outdated standards to assess the toxic harm from industrial fires, including the fire at Sims Metal Management's scrap metal yard in Redwood City that ignited Sunday around 1:20 p.m.

“People have to be aware of the fact they are not being protected,” said air quality expert Dr. Thomas Cahill. “This fire is a good example.”

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The fire prompted the Bay Area Air Quality Management District to issue a 17-hour shelter-in-place warning for three Bay Area counties as the fire burned metal, chemicals and other scraps from old cars and appliances. But a review of the district’s actions after four other fires at Bay Area metal recyclers by the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit reveals regulators may not be doing enough to determine if contaminants are harmful or to crack down on companies with a history of fires.

"I think the regulation of fires and exceptional events is absolutely inadequate, I mean to the point it’s almost criminal," Cahill said. "We have got to do a better job."

Cahill is a professor emeritus at UC Davis, and has dedicated much of his career to studying the effects of air pollution on the human body, including extensive research into contamination from the collapse of the World Trade Center. He said he believes the air district doesn’t possess the authority or technology to respond rapidly and effectively to major industrial fires.

The Investigative Unit found that since 2007, there have been five major fires at the biggest metal recyclers in the Bay Area, Sims and Schnitzer Steel, which erupted in Oakland, Hayward, San Francisco and twice in Redwood City.

In an interview, representatives from the air district said that there is little toxicity in the smoke from industrial fires and that the particulates are no more toxic than those released from a forest fire.  

Eric Stevenson, director of air monitoring, said the agency controls 32 detection stations that routinely check for air pollution, but that following massive fires, the district can only detect the size of the particulate matter in the smoke, but not the actual composition of the matter.

“In short-duration-incidents such as the fire,” Stevenson said, “it is extremely difficult to know exactly what the composition of the smoke is because of the limitations in the technology available to us.”  

Cahill says it is precisely this lack of knowledge that limits regulators from issuing significant penalties that can help prevent these fires.
 
The air district says it can fine companies up to a quarter of a million dollars for incidents such as fires. But NBC Bay Area has confirmed that fires at Sims recycling facilities in San Francisco and Hayward, in November 2010 and May 2009 respectively, did not result in any penalties. Neither did a fire at Schnitzer's metal shredding facility near the Port of Oakland in April 2009.

Out of the last four fire investigations, the district issued just one fine in the 2007 fire at Sims. It was a $20,000 fine for a “public nuisance” violation.

“That would pay for donuts for a week,” Cahill said. “I want multi-million dollar fines so the cost of business would go up if they don’t have proper regulations.”

The air district informed NBC Bay Area late Wednesday that while Sunday’s fire in Redwood City is still under investigation, the agency knows there was a “significant impact to the community” and that the event will “likely result in a fine.”

In the meantime, the air district is currently seeking more enforcement authority from state lawmakers.

“A lot of it is the legislature needs to better understand why it’s necessary,” said agency spokeswoman Lisa Fasano. “I think after incidents like this; incidents like the Chevron fire last summer, there is recognition that more needs to be done. We’re hoping the legislature will understand and recognize we need to expand the authority for the penalties.”

Stevenson said the district plans to spend $500,000 on new technology to better assess the toxins released from industrial fires and that the agency expects to begin installation next year.

In a statement, Sims said that the company has made improvements to its Redwood City facility since the 2007 fire, including installing multiple fire hydrants and adding expanded fire lanes and fire access gates, and limiting the height and quantity of stockpiled material.

If you have a tip for the Investigative Unit call 888-996-TIPS or email theunit@nbcbayarea.com.

Follow Vicky Nguyen on Twitter or on Facebook

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