A proposed facility to manufacture machines that make liquid natural gas could break ground in East Palo Alto within a year. And the plant could eventually provide an estimated 900 or more jobs to local residents, according to the company, American Gas & Technology. The plant is proposed for the 17.2-acre former Romic Environmental Technologies property at 2081 Bay Road, American Gas CEO Ray Tate told the Weekly.
The Bay Area-based company would clean up the toxic site and build a 145,000-square-foot fabrication and assembly facility and 25,000 square feet of corporate offices, Tate said.
The company is a new fuel producer that processes inexpensive natural gas into a high-octane vehicle fuel known as liquefied natural gas, an alternative to gasoline and diesel.
Compressed-gas vehicles have only about a 100-mile range, but liquid gas would triple mileage to about 300 miles per tank, according to Tate. The factory would manufacture stations that make liquefied natural gas for bus and taxi fleets, municipal vehicles, police cars, trucks and ambulances. The natural gas would be piped in from a local utility at the fleet locations. The station cleans the gas and liquifies it, then stores and dispenses the liquid gas.
"It's just the future," Tate said.
The plant would consist of 25,000 square feet of executive offices, 25,000 square feet for a facility to convert vehicles to run on liquid natural gas, 60,000 square feet for station assembly and 60,000 square feet for fabrication of cryogenic heat exchangers subject to receiving the necessary approvals from all the environmental agencies and the City of East Palo Alto.
City officials said they are cautiously optimistic about the proposal. The potential for jobs that are well suited to many residents, such as welding, machining and assembly, would be a welcome benefit, but there is a real concern for how the heavily polluted site would be cleaned to prepare for the facility, said John Doughty, community development director.
Tate said the company has been working with 13 consultants and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the state Department of Toxic Substances Control and the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board for 18 months to develop a new $6 million cleanup plan. The cleanup would be partially funded by Tate and by other investors, he said.
Tackling the Romic site would be a significant boon to the city and to federal agencies, who worry about how to clean or remove the tons of contaminated soil and water. Much of the area is at or below sea level and is near the San Francisco Bay.
The site remains an investment pariah, despite an ongoing federal clean-up program since 2008.
"No one wants to buy it," Tate said.
State and federal officials shut down Romic in August 2007 after years of hazardous-materials accidents and leaks, including several that injured workers. The area has been a hazardous-waste site for a series of companies since the 1950s, before the days of environmental controls and when toxic materials routinely leaked directly onto the ground.
But the property is now in escrow, Tate said, although he could not reveal the purchase price due to a nondisclosure agreement.
A spokeswoman for Romic confirmed the sale is in negotiation and is contingent on cleanup approval from the government agencies.
"Romic is taking a huge loss on this agreement and they are willing to do so. They want to divest of the property. It really is for the greater good. It is certainly a great benefit to the community if this went through," Tracy Craig said.
American Gas would use biological remediation technologies that fit in with the EPA's current protocols for the site, said Ron Leach, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cleanup-oversight manager for the site.
The current EPA plan treats the Romic property with cheese whey and molasses, injected into vertically drilled wells. The mixture feeds oxygen-consuming soil bacteria, and when the oxygen is depleted, non-oxygen-consuming bacteria break down the solvents. The whey-molasses process has worked well, Leach said.
But part of the long-term solution included potentially excavating and trucking out large quantities of contaminated soil. That plan raises many cost and environmental concerns, he said.
Under Tate's proposal, underground horizontal pipes and wells would act like an irrigation system. Layers of groundwater would be injected with a sugar-based solution for the microbes to ingest. Pumps would extract the water and treat it with more solution, then recirculate the water into the layers to keep feeding the bacteria over a wider area. Clean, compacted soil would cap some of the most polluted areas and raise the area above the flood plain, Leach said.
If those methods do not succeed, the company would be asked to devise a different strategy, Leach said.
Cleaning the site would take about five years, with monitoring for 30 years more, Tate estimated. But the factory groundbreaking could begin six months after approval by all regulatory agencies and if the project is approved and permitted by the city, he said.
Leach said the factory could be built and operated at the same time contaminated areas are being cleaned. A parking lot would cover the most contaminated areas.
Doughty said the remediation strategy and potential for a business at the site are encouraging.
The EPA will give the City Council an update on the Romic land on Jan. 21.
Russ Edmondson, California Department of Toxic Substances Control spokesman, said the agencies are in the process of reviewing a conceptual remedial design plan, and they will likely approve it in the near future, with modifications.
"DTSC and EPA have provided comments on the plan, and we are now waiting for a revised plan to be submitted," he said in an email.
Tim Tight, vice president of finance for American Gas, said company representatives will attend the Jan. 21 City Council meeting, but a formal community presentation would occur at a future date after escrow closes.
American Gas also plans to fund development through the federal EB-5 Immigrant Investor Program, which grants visas to foreign investors who invest in a new commercial enterprise in qualifying rural or economically depressed areas, Tight said.
With an unemployment rate that exceeds 150 percent of the national average, East Palo Alto qualifies as a federal "targeted employment area," eligible for capital investment by foreign investors.