White roofing material spills into Matadero Creek

Roof-coating substance washed in during rainstorm from nearby Xerox/VM Ware site

About 25 gallons of a white roofing material washed into Matadero Creek during Sunday's rainstorm.

An investigation is under way by Palo Alto fire department and city environmental officials, Ken Torke, manager of environmental control programs, confirmed Monday.

The runoff drained from a building roof on the Xerox/VM Ware campus at 3400 Hillview Ave. after a contractor had painted the surface with an acrylic elastomeric roofing material, Torke said.

The materials, which are "glorified" white paint consisting primarily of titanium oxide and a drying agent, were applied to the roof by Platinum Roofing Inc. of San Jose prior to the rainstorm but did not dry, he said.

The substances are Tresco Paint Company Elastomeric roof coating modified acrylic, product number 751; and Clear prep prime coat modified acrylic, product number 754, according to Torke.

The coatings were applied to Building 1 on Friday (Nov. 5) and to Building 2 on Saturday (Nov. 6), he said.

"The contractor stated that the material had not cured as expected due to a lower level of accelerant added to the product and lower than expected temperatures," Torke said.

The downspouts from the building connect directly to a private, on-site, storm-drain-collections system that connects to the public city system on the west side of Foothill Expressway. The city system travels under Foothill 280 feet to an outfall on Matadero Creek, Torke said.

David Coale, a Barron Park resident, observed the milky substance about 3 p.m. Sunday while walking near the footbridge at Bol Park near the donkey enclosure.

"I knew something was wrong," he said on Monday.

He called 911, but the fire department had checked out the material about four hours prior and determined it was not toxic, he said.

Coale followed the milky flow back up to its source. Close to the source, it smelled peculiar, he said.

The substance has now cleared in the lower channel near Fry's Electronics but remains somewhat cloudy in the upper reaches of the creek, Torke said.

As of Monday morning (Nov. 8), the storm drain discharge appeared clear, although some cloudy material remained in the catch basins. The creek remains cloudy, he said.

Douglas Graham, who lives on Ilima Way and has observed the creek for 40 years, said when sunlight hit the water around noon on Monday, the cloudy substance appeared blue-greenish and was "very pronounced."

"It looked like glacier milk," he said. He added that it appeared to have lessened by 3 p.m.

The creek is home to all manner of birds, insects and fish, including sticklebacks, Pacific tree frogs, crawdads and occasionally steelhead, Graham said. And he has seen his share of spills on the creek.

"I was the one that nailed the VA when they dumped wheelchair cleaner in the creek in about 1982. It killed the tree frogs. Twenty years later, the frogs are just coming back now," he said.

Considering the substance is not known to be harmful, Torke said his department is hoping there is a minimal toxicity.

"We will watch the creek for the next couple of days. We're not anticipating a long-term problem. We're hoping there is a minimal toxicity," he said.

The product safety-data indicates the two substances contain propylene glycol, polyether polyol and cabanate. The latter substance also contains bicyclic oxazol.

Both products are considered non-flammable but overexposure can cause dizziness, light-headedness and symptoms similar to alcohol inebriation. High concentrations can have a narcotic effect, the safety-data material states.

The substances can aggravate asthma, bronchitis and dermatitis. Both substances decompose into carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide, according to the data sheets.

"Stanford land management staff is working with the building owner to determine environmental concerns and additional reporting requirements. At this point they have asked the property manager to contact Fish and Game and the Regional Water Quality Control Board," Torke said.

The contractor and paint manufacturer inspected the roof and said that the material had cured to the point that no further discharges would be expected, according to Torke. The property owner and contractor are working to block the drainage to avoid further discharge, he added.

Chances are good the company will be fined. Depending on the investigation and interviews that follow, the fine could range from a few thousand dollars to up to $10,000, he said.

"A discharge did happen. That's not OK in Palo Alto," he said.

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Like this comment
Posted by Mike Alexander
a resident of another community
on Nov 8, 2010 at 7:47 pm

It's a shame that reckless actions like this still occur here. The weather unfolded last weekend exactly as had been forecast several days ahead, so one has to wonder where the contractor's expectations came from. And, which of the players, if any, knew that if the paint didn't dry it would wash into a pretty, lively little creek? Why was it worth that risk to apply a thermal reflective coating at this time of year?
As of January 2010, VMware had $2.5 billion in cash reserves. Maybe they could spend a couple million of that to buffer their runoff, and give the creek a break. What do you say, Mr. Maritz?
Think globally, act locally! Save Matadero Creek!

Like this comment
Posted by qq
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 8, 2010 at 9:27 pm

The tide was especially high this weekend because of the new moon. I was out on the bay this weekend and as I got closer to shore I was curious as to all the white spots I was seeing in the marsh grasses.

What was all the speckle I had seen from a distance?

Trash. Lots of trash. Trash along the shore for as far as the eye could see.

Unless you are out when the tide is really high you would never know it is there. A disgusting amount of trash that is hidden within the marsh grasses.

We should all be ashamed of ourselves for not cleaning up this mess.


Like this comment
Posted by Jim McCarthy
a resident of South of Midtown
on Nov 9, 2010 at 2:38 am

In response to qq, we do have public volunteer clean ups in the Baylands/Floodbasin area twice a year. We are restricted at some times during the year due to nesting going on. Volunteer at one of the events in May and September! Special cleanups are done occasionally, too. If you spot trash "everywhere", pass that along to city officials who will get word down to us folks who organize the cleanup events.

Meanwhile, focus on the spill event upstream and the cleanup of *that* we should be seeing right now.

Like this comment
Posted by Joe
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 9, 2010 at 11:12 am

I wouldn't blame Paul Maritz unless he was caught dumping his toxic Microsoft shares into Matadero Creek. The Xerox Campus is owned by Equity Office (Web Link) and they're no small outfit. Equity owns millions of square feet of office space in the area as well as the rest of the country.

One question I have for the City: Why did it take so long for Public Works to get back to the PAFD about the location of the storm drains that feed into the creek? PAFD was dispatched just before 11:30AM to the area behind the University Club. But, it took hours before PAFD could get enough information from Public Works to identify the source on Equity's Xerox property.

Thank goodness it wasn't a serious spill. But, the City needs to do a better job in providing an emergency response for these kind of events.

Like this comment
Posted by Sheesh
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Nov 9, 2010 at 11:22 am

Calm down folks. I've put this stuff on my roof. It's basically acrylic paint (cleans up with soap and water). Sure, not a great thing to go into runoff, but I'll wager WAY safer than the tons of "Round Up" and fertilizer that some of the big companies use. Ever seen how many acres of BRIGHT GREEN GRASS the VA Hospital has? That ain't natural around here, folks. Or how about the tons of pollution all your SUVs are spewing into the air that returns as acid rain? Or the pills people flush down the toilet or the estrogens and fluoride compounds in our foods and medicines? Just saying ... if you're going to get upset about runoff, do your homework and learn what's really causing the damage.

Like this comment
Posted by CHinCider
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 9, 2010 at 4:03 pm

To "Joe"/ Baron Park -

"Why did it take so long for Public Works to get back to PAFD?"

Uh, maybe because it was on a SUNDAY and Public Works staff had to be called out from home? They don't have 24/7/365 paid coverage like the PAFD does. Maybe you'd like to have them get paid to wait around too?

Like this comment
Posted by Mike Alexander
a resident of another community
on Nov 9, 2010 at 5:16 pm

@Sheesh: sad but true, the white stuff you can see is probably nothing compared to stuff running off you can't see. That said, just because you and I can tolerate something doesn't mean the creek ecosystem can. I believe zero tolerance for this type of spill is correct policy, and that amplifying every incident is correct environmentalist strategy.
@Joe: PAFD should have a copy of the map of sewers and drains and know how to read it, don't you think?

Like this comment
Posted by Joe
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 9, 2010 at 5:38 pm


Yes, that's exactly right.

Lets see if we can understand this. The City just spent $400,000, along with $150,000 Homeland Security grant and $150,000 state grant on 40 foot long mobile communications center. It has a kitchen, bathroom, 30 radios, computers with LCD screens, an external video camera, a generator as well as internet and phone service via satellite. But, they apparently forgot about a drawer to hold maps of the City's storm drain system. Apparently, the maps are only available to Public Works during normal business hours.


Why does Public Works need personnel on duty or working on weekends to answer simple questions like these? The on-call responsible for Public Works should have a copy of the maps at his residence. The on-call could have simply answered the PAFD's questions over the phone. This is common practice in the utility and transportation industries.

Like this comment
Posted by Stobal
a resident of another community
on Nov 10, 2010 at 12:58 pm

The only solution to this pollution is dilution.

Like this comment
Posted by C J
a resident of another community
on Nov 10, 2010 at 1:50 pm

As a roofing contractor, I know that watching the weather is my other full time job and responsibility to myself, clients and the environment.
Forcasts are not always correct, but this time line was spot on.

Keeping my employees busy this time of year when rain is probable is just not worth the risk of property or environmental damage.

The water certainly should have been diverted since the weather was cold and damp and the setting up of the coating was not going to happen as expected.

I hope it reminds all contractors to slow down and evaluate each situation better.

Like this comment
Posted by suzyframe
a resident of Monroe Park
on Aug 10, 2012 at 10:09 am

That is crazy that so much washed into the river. That can't really be good for our society. Was it because the weather was so bad, or could the blame be placed on the roofing contractorof the homes? I can't but help wonder if he could be a reason why it came off so easy! Thanks for sharing! In regards:

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