The six-year conflict between Barron Park residents and Communications & Power Industries (CPI) over the company's use of toxic chemicals illustrates the difficulty of removing a legal non-conforming use from a neighborhood that is threatened by a spill or the accidental release of these dangerous substances.
Located at 811 Hansen Way in one of the original Varian Associates buildings built in 1953, CPI is one of the few companies left that are operating hazardous production processes in a research park that has gradually evolved to be dominated by office uses.
And while Barron Park was developed after Varian built its facility, concern over the toxic hazards to the neighborhood didn't arise until CPI expanded its plating operation in 2006 and soon after accidentally released nitric acid into the air and raised alarms in Barron Park.
Residents became more concerned in March 2008, when CPI spilled a hydrochloric acid and water solution in a rear driveway and then two months later, dumped nearly 50 gallons of wastewater containing copper and nickel into Matadero Creek.
The three incidents galvanized the neighbors, who have persistently tried to get CPI's hazardous activities stopped. Monday night, more than a dozen Barron Park residents pressed the council to force CPI to either move or stop its use of toxic chemicals. Such substances should not be located so close to their homes, they said.
"This plating shop is right behind our neighborhood," said Samir Tuma, a Barron Park resident who lives on Chimalus Drive near CPI. "A plating shop with potassium cyanide and nitric acid does not belong right next door to our neighborhood."
It shouldn't be allowed next to any neighborhood, and the City Council appears on track to do what should have been done long ago: provide reasonable notice to CPI that the use of toxic chemicals next to residential neighborhoods will be prohibited.
Complicating the matter for the council were assertions from CPI president and chief executive officer Bob Fickett, who said the amount of chemicals stored at the company are now below the threshold of Title 19, a state law that restricts the amount of chemicals a company can store before it has to add safety measures.
He said CPI's premises are monitored 24-hours a day and that trained employees watch over every delivery of dangerous chemicals. The company employs about 650 workers and Fickett said it has no plans to move anytime soon. And in his view, it would be unlawful for the city to force it to move.
Sorry, we don't buy it.
While CPI is in compliance with the zoning code by virtue of its grandfathered rights to continue what is known as a non-conforming use, the city has several ways to begin a process that would eventually require CPI to either shut down its plating operation or move it to another location. Three options were laid out in a staff report for the council and could be implemented regardless of whether CPI's use is now below Title 19 thresholds for hazardous materials.
The first, and in our view the most practical, is for the city to amend the zoning to prohibit plating shops or facilities using similar hazardous materials from being located within 300 feet of residential zones, and require current uses to cease after a reasonable period.
A study done for the city found that 20 years is a reasonable period for CPI to phase out its operations, with the clock starting in 2006, the year CPI made its most recent improvements at the Hansen Way site. That would give the company 14 years to phase out its use of toxic chemicals.
Other options would require that more details be disclosed about hazardous chemicals and their use near residential areas, while a third would not seek to modify zoning but would work with CPI and the neighbors to achieve voluntary reductions in the use of hazardous chemicals near the neighborhood.
The council is taking a cautious approach to the issue, but did move toward what we hope will be a solution, deciding to ask a consultant to reassess the definition of a hazardous facility like CPI. The consultant would compare the best ways to handle hazardous materials with practices currently in use by CPI and advise the council on possible risk levels that could assist in making a zoning change.
After this study is complete, the council gave itself six months to take action, a reasonable amount of time but still addressing the urgency expressed by the Barron Park homeowners. We hope that the plan laid out this week will finally bring a resolution to a problem that has been festering unnecessarily for six years or longer.
Today, no company using hazardous materials like CPI would be permitted to locate near a residential neighborhood. Now, it is the city's responsibility to remedy a situation that has gone on long enough.
Apologies for past problems and improved emergency procedures aren't enough. It is time for the city to begin the amortization process and for CPI to find another site for its plating operation. Residents should not be subjected to the risks that these substances could escape containment and threaten their homes and lives.