Palo Alto Weekly: New hope for a cleaner south bay
Publication Date: Jan 19, 1994

TOXICS: New hope for a cleaner south bay

Audits show copper, nickel discharges can be reduced

One year after a landmark legal settlement aimed at reducing heavy metal discharges in the environmentally fragile south San Francisco Bay, plans are under way to begin new methods to reduce the discharge of pollutants.

Four industrial companies in Mountain View that discharge through the Palo Alto water quality control plant have voluntarily allowed "audits" of their operations in the hopes of reducing their discharges of copper and nickel.

The next step will be to use one of those four as a pilot program to determine whether the metal discharges can be reduced in a way that is also cost effective, said Phil Bobel, Palo Alto's environmental compliance manager. Developing such a pilot program is probably four to six months away, he said.

Members of environmental groups that led the years-long effort to reduce metal discharges into the bay are hopeful that the audits of the four companies in Mountain View and three others that use the San Jose/Santa Clara sewage plant will show industry that use of the damaging metals can be reduced without too great a financial burden on the companies.

The problem with heavy metal discharges is that they accumulate in the shallow southern portion of San Francisco Bay, which is not flushed by tidal action. They then enter the food chain, affecting microscopic flora and fauna, shellfish, fish and water fowl. It is harder to extract the metals from sewage at the water treatment plants than it is to keep the metals from getting into the wastewater in the first place, which is what the audits were looking at.

Environmental groups filed a lawsuit against the federal Environmental Protection Agency in 1990, charging that the EPA was not enforcing its own standards in the bay. The coalition of 34 environmental groups, led by Citizens for a Better Environment (CBE) and the Audubon Society, negotiated a legal settlement with Palo Alto in January 1993. Other agreements followed with San Jose and Sunnyvale, the operators of two other sewage plants that discharge into the bay.

Now, with audits completed of seven major industrial dischargers, four of whom use the Palo Alto plant, the environmental groups hope that the southern section of the bay is on its way to a healthier future.

"These results just look too good to be true," CBE's Greg Karras said of the audits. Those audits show that the seven companies can reduce their discharges of copper from 60 to 99 percent and of nickel 44 to 99 percent at costs that could be capitalized over two to five years. And financial help to reach those goals may be forthcoming from the cities.

Karras said that San Jose already has set aside $2 million to help fund the effort. Part of the legal settlement Palo Alto reached with the environmental groups one year ago was to provide unspecified financial incentives to help carry the costs of the efforts.

Figuring that part out will be a policy decision for the City Council and will likely be proposed when the pilot program for one company is considered in several months, Bobel said.

But the road ahead may still not be easy. While Karras and Trish Mulvey of the Audubon Society are encouraged by the audits of the seven companies, Bobel takes a more cautious approach.

He noted that the companies participating in the audits were all volunteers that operate with strong environmental programs already in place. Those companies were and are skeptical whether the results envisioned by the audits can really be reached, he added.

"They're just not sure they'll get the actual reductions (in discharges) and also get actual cost reductions," Bobel said.

"But we think it is very encouraging that there are more pollution control measures that may be cost effective," he added.

The environmentalists were more optimistic. "The premise we agreed to work toward was right," said Karras. "We can save the bay, and save jobs."

"In a community that historically cared about the environment and the quality of life, there initially was some skepticism," said Mulvey. But the city agreed to settle the lawsuit to find a common solution with the environmental groups, and the companies in the audit agreed to step forward as part of the process.

Copper and nickel are equally important in terms of the damage they cause, but much of the effort will focus on copper. Last year at this time, the Palo Alto sewage plant had exceeded federal standards for discharge of copper into the bay 52 of the previous 52 weeks, while nickel discharges exceeded federal standards only four of the 52 weeks.

A significant part of the problem to be addressed later is that sewage plants probably can't meet discharge standards without reducing the amount of copper coming from homes and apartments, often through corrosion of water pipes. That may mean new additives for the drinking water supply that reduce that part of the problem, Mulvey said.

--Don Kazak

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