The facility, a plating plant at Communications and Power Industries (CPI), is located at 811 Hansen Way in the Stanford Research Park.
But CPI so far is taking a hard line: "We do not intend to move. We do not intend to close our plate shop. Over the past several years we've put a significant amount of money on efforts to reduce our hazardous materials. We have made no commitment nor are we under any obligation to stop using chemicals. They are a vital part of our manufacturing processes," CPI spokeswoman Amanda Mogin told the Weekly Wednesday.
She said the firm is willing to work with a city-hired consultant to find ways to reduce the use of hazardous materials.
The plant has been the source of repeated leaks in recent years, most notably a February 2006 nitric-acid cloud that blanketed part of the neighborhood; a March 2008 100-gallon hydrochloric-acid spill; and a May 2008 leak of heavy metals into the storm drain leading to nearby Matadero Creek.
The plant is located less than 100 feet from residential properties and contains a special class of "Title 19" hazardous materials under state regulations, including nitric acid and potassium cyanide.
City Manager James Keene recently hired CBRE Consulting of San Francisco to analyze potential relocation of the plant, according to Curtis Williams, the city's director of planning and community environment.
CPI manufactures microwave devices for radar, satellites and electron accelerators and says the plant is a key part of its work.
But residents along Chimalus Drive say having the chemicals close to a residential area is a disaster waiting to happen. They say the neighborhood was left out of the decision-making process when the plant was rebuilt in 2005.
CPI paid a $20,000 settlement to the city after the 2006 nitric-acid release. The incident prompted a change in city regulations to require a minimum distance of 300 feet from residences for new facilities using hazardous materials. The regulations also require emergency contingency plans and notification to residents of proposed changes.
But the Santa Clara County Department of Environmental Health and the Palo Alto Fire Department initially criticized CPI's post-accident risk-management plan. Residents said the 300-foot distance does not protect them from other releases.
Williams said the city's 2007 ordinance to keep such hazardous facilities 300 feet was deemed extremely expensive for CPI to have to move the plating plant, which was only rebuilt in 2005. The city wanted to give the company time to recoup some of its investments.
But now the city is looking at ways to get the facility moved.
"CPI is the only property owner in Palo Alto with that level of hazardous materials. Residents clearly continue to be concerned." They want to know that they could count on not having the shop near property lines, Williams said.
Potential zoning changes could convert the site to other uses or the city could have the plating shop moved 500 feet from residences, he said. The consultant will look at ways to achieve amortization over a period of time to allow CPI to recoup much of its investment prior to having to relocate the plant, he said.
"It could be five or 20 years," Williams said, depending on what the consultant recommends.
A draft report will be completed in about two months. Zoning changes, if they are to occur, would go through the Planning and Transportation Commission, public hearings and the City Council and could become law by fall, he said.
Residents said they are encouraged by the steps the city has taken.
"We'll have to see what the outcome of the amortization study is, and how long it would give CPI to move their hazardous-materials operation out of the neighborhood," resident Art Liberman said.
"The sooner, the better. The residents on Chimalus who have put up with this for many years are still fuming over how they were left out of the decision process in 2004-2005, when CPI remodeled their facility and made a bad situation for us even worse," he said. Liberman serves on the neighborhood's "CPI hazard watch."
"There is no place for a hazardous-materials site with the risk of another toxic-fume release being adjacent to residences in our city, or in any city."
He said CPI ranks at the top of the most hazardous sites in Palo Alto, being the only one with hazardous materials above the state thresholds for "extremely hazardous materials."
Mogin said the company has been notified by the city about the hiring of a consultant but they have not yet met.
She said the company produces key components for defense and medical technologies. "It is important we continue to do the work we are doing," she said.
But she said CPI is looking forward to meeting the consultant.
She said CPI has been "looking at reducing the amounts of hazardous materials" covered by state regulations. But she said there are technical constraints in such areas as changing processes and chemical baths and in the use of alternative chemical compositions.
"We believe that's what the consultant was hired for," she said.