Posted by Fred Balin, a resident of the College Terrace neighborhood, on Aug 4, 2007 at 5:05 pm
It seems like a miracle, but the catalysts were firmly on the ground.
An un-renewed permit since 1991, serious injuries to workers, toxic releases, and dozens of violations of state regulations formed the core of the Romic East Palo Alto legacy into mid-decade.
At that point, lip service to community responsibility was overshadowed by hubris in Romic's attempt to seek approval for a dramatically expanded hazardous waste treatment facility.
Additional violations, accidents, and toxic releases followed, leading to a desist order from a new, forceful head at the state’s Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC).
The tide was finally turning. Long-standing community messages were reinforced. Press coverage revived. Corporate enablers, watching the tides and hiding behind anonymity, shifted at least some of their hazardous waste needs to other sources.
Yet the Romic facade continued with their president’s confidence in a right to appeal coupled with unsubstantiated claims of improvements. Three weeks later, he and three VPs bailed out just before their New York private-equity-firm owners, Three Cities Research Inc., pulled the plug and sold the company to Romic competitor, Clean Harbors Environmental Services.
Whether from enlightened self-interest, an eye to powerful PR and/or a higher calling, Clean Harbors justly enters the final act of this saga as savior. While expanding its operations through acquisition of seven Romic service centers, the problem-ridden facilities in East Palo Alto and the Gila River Reservation are not included. This leaves to today’s Romic the job of cleanup and closure of its East Palo Alto asset. Once completed, hopefully Three Cities will sell it to a more enlightened owner.
But while kudos of the moment fall upon Clean Harbors, the more important, lifetime achievement awards go to those who created the environment that enabled this profound change. In very large measure, they are the young people in East Palo Alto and their umbrella groups, such as Youth United in Community Action (YUCA), who led the long-term grass-roots efforts that slowly but persistently tipped the heavy scales.
From community organizing, educating, and demonstrating; speaking in neighboring towns; responding to California Environmental Impact and DTSC Reports, to filing an Environmental Protection Agency civil rights complaint, there is much to be admired and learned from in this success story.
I hope we will hear more about the key players and their efforts, both first hand and via press coverage.
But in the meantime, let all who participated in, supported, and/or will benefit from “this good fight,” begin with a simple refrain, “Hallelu!”
Posted by Fred Balin, a resident of the College Terrace neighborhood, on Aug 5, 2007 at 9:34 am
As per yesterday's PA Daily News:
"At least 60 percent of the East Palo Alto plant's 100-strong work force was extended job offers by Clean Harbors, said [Romic spokesperson] Stampolis, who was unsure how many employees took them. Most of the employees offered jobs work in production and sales and customer service; they are expected to fill similar positions with Clean Harbors.
Truck drivers and administrators make up the 40 percent not offered jobs, Stampolis said."
Posted by Fred Balin, a resident of the College Terrace neighborhood, on Aug 5, 2007 at 1:57 pm
Would need to check.
But assuming for the sake of argument there is, at least in the short term, an increase in shipment distances, is this, together with your earlier comment about potential business moves, the extent of your justification as to why closing this facility is a bad idea? Kindly elaborate.
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of the Midtown neighborhood, on Aug 5, 2007 at 8:31 pm
I question the harm to the neighborhood from the operation, and I believe we need such a facility close to the manufacturing operations. I don't intend to go into a list of hazmats the area contains, materials successfully contained for years, but industry is our friend.
Posted by Reflections, a resident of East Palo Alto, on Aug 6, 2007 at 12:13 pm
Romic timely applied for a renewal of its operating permit. Delays in that process were not initiated by Romic and did not cause the slow action of the decision makers. Although Romic's permit renewal application never required it, Romic voluntarily requested a full EIR even after the first round of state permit renewal review resulted in a agency declaration that an EIR was not needed.
Whether at a city level, a county level or a state level, a permitting agency in California always retains 100 percent control over review and potential certification or non-certification of an EIR. This statement applies to any land use decision - from housing to business. A lesson learned from this experience is to ensure that state agencies have adequate staff levels to provide timely application processing. Whether it's an approval or a denial, any government agency should decide on applications in less than a decade. No applicant and no community should wait that long for an administrative decision.
There are many reasons why people might rejoice at the possibility that East Palo Alto may end all industrial zoning.
But we all should note that the cars we drive, the cosmetics we use, the cleaning supplies we purchase, and millions of cell phones, computers and other electronic equipment all require substantial waste management efforts. As joint residents of this state, we can landfill, incinerate or recycle the liquid waste generated by day-to-day manufacturing. Or we, as a society, can ship it elsewhere out of sight. The Bay Area increasingly prefers the "ship away" option.
With the end of Romic's service, the Bay Area loses a full-service industrial recycling option. There probably will be more transport of hazardous waste on roads and rail lines, and there may be less manufacturing in the region over time. Nonetheless there also are new opportunities for development in the industrial section of East Palo Alto. The industrial section of town has been on paper as "Part 3" of the City's growth for many years. So the curtain now rises on a new story.
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of the Midtown neighborhood, on Aug 7, 2007 at 12:34 pm
"so the toxics are shipped elsewhere, big deal"
O.K. if you don't share the road with them. O.K. if your job does not depend on local recycling of materials. The chances are, NIMBY, you are in THEIR back yard. One more guy who wants to milk the cow but beat it up.
Posted by Reader, a resident of another community, on Aug 9, 2007 at 12:20 am
As usual Walt, you don't let any facts get in the way of your expert opinion:
"While expanding its (Clean Harbors) operations through acquisition of seven Romic service centers, the problem-ridden facilities in East Palo Alto and the Gila River Reservation (in Arizona) are not included."
So Clean Harbors took everything Romic had EXCEPT its two diasters, one being the EPA plant. Sound business decision - and good for the environment/human health (including the workers there). That's a WIN-WIN.
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of the Midtown neighborhood, on Aug 9, 2007 at 7:11 am
The business of recycling dirty solvents and destroying harmful substances will continue elsewhere, necessitating trucking those materials long distances, with the emissions and accident risks that entails. The workers at Romic had a better than average safety record and far better wages than they will get from any other EPA employment. The harm to the neighborhood was mostly psychic, and the demand for closure was mainly a knee-jerk to the fanciful "environmental racism" theory.