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Dale Dualan, a volunteer helping to monitor the air around Pacific Steel Casting in Berkeley, stands by a mobile air-monitoring device, one of several placed on rooftops around the plant. Three schools within a mile of the steel foundry ranked in the first percentile for bad air quality in a report by USA Today.

and Doug Oakley

BERKELEY — Three Berkeley schools are on top of a nationwide list for bad air quality, according to a report on 127,800 schools conducted by a national newspaper using data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and released Monday.

USA Today spent eight months examining the impact of industrial pollution on the air outside American schools.

What the investigation found was that Black Pine Circle School, a private school for kindergarten to eighth-graders on Seventh Street, Nia House Learning Center, an early childhood learning and day care center on Ninth Street, and Via Center, a school for developmentally disabled students on Sixth Street, all ranked in the first percentile.

That means that the air is only worse at 377 of the 127,800 schools that were studied.

All the schools are south of University Avenue in South Berkeley within a mile of Pacific Steel Casting, a steel foundry that has been sued by three different groups because of odor and reported toxic emissions during the past several years.

The company, which makes steel castings for truck parts, medical equipment and sewer pipes, also has been at the center of complaints from residents about headaches and a tightness in their chests because of foul odors.

The foundry emits manganese and manganese compounds and accounts for 85 percent of the overall toxicity in the air near the schools, according to EPA information in the study.

"When you rank that high in toxic exposure compared to schools in major industrial belts, it's very alarming, because West Berkeley has some industrial base, but it's tiny compared to industrial areas such as places like Cleveland," said Denny Larson, executive director of Global Community Monitor, an El Cerrito nonprofit that empowers industrial communities to re-create a clean, healthy and sustainable environment.

But Pacific Steel spokeswoman Elisabeth Jewel said the study means little because California standards are far more rigid than the U.S. EPA standards.

"The California standards are extremely stringent, and PSC has met those standards over and over again," she said.

She said that last year the foundry released a health risk assessment report, which shows the cancer risks and noncancer hazards for those exposed to plant emissions and for those living or attending school or day care near the facility do not pose a "significant risk."

The assessment was mandated by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District under a state air pollution control law. The report was completed by Environ in Emeryville and paid for by Pacific Steel. It recently was certified by the district, Jewel said.

In the study's second percentile were the Berkeley Montessori School on University Avenue and Berkwood Hedge School on Bancroft Way, both in Berkeley.

Administrators at Berkeley Montessori School said they had seen the study but declined to comment. Administrators at other first- and second-percentile schools in Berkeley did not return calls seeking comment.

In addition to Pacific Steel Casting, the study lists Chevron Products Co. in Richmond, ConocoPhillips San Francisco Refinery in Rodeo, Tesoro Refinery in Martinez and Valero Refining Co. in Benicia as "polluters most responsible for toxics outside the schools," the study reports.

Reach Kristin Bender at kbender@bayareanewsgroup.com and Doug Oakley at doakley@bayareanewsgroup.com.