Residents question chemical-hazards report for CPI

Barron Park residents voice continued concerns about Communications and Power Industries' (CPI) safety record and plating shop operations

Barron Park residents who live near a technology firm with a track record of dangerous chemical releases told city leaders they are dissatisfied with a consultant's hazardous-risks report, and they want the Communications and Power Industries, Inc. facility shut down.

City officials and consultants discussed the risk-assessment report on Communications and Power Industries, Inc. (CPI), a manufacturer of microwave and radio transmission devices, at a Feb. 20 community meeting, but residents have asked for further analysis before staff presents the findings to City Council.

Barron Park residents have repeatedly called for the city to shut down CPI's plating facility at 607-811 Hansen Way. Since the company moved some of its operations from San Carlos in 2006 and rebuilt a plating facility, it has had a series of chemical releases, including one that sent a nitric acid cloud over the adjacent neighborhood in 2006. It was caused by an airborne release of nitric and sulfuric acid.

In March 2008, CPI spilled 80 gallons of hydrochloric acid, causing 20 gallons to leak into its rear driveway. In a third accident in June 2008, the company released about 50 gallons of wastewater containing copper and nickel into Matadero Creek.

In response, the City Council in 2012 commissioned an amortization study to determine how long it would take for CPI to recoup its investment at the site if the plating facility were to be shut down. The council commissioned the separate risk study so it could consider zoning changes. But the report does not make any recommendations regarding zoning changes or the closure of CPI. It will serve as the framework for staff recommendations to council, consultant Rod Jeung said.

City Manager James Keene told residents that staff will recommend zoning changes that would render CPI's current activities "non-conforming use" of the land. CPI would have to be in compliance with new zoning or move.

But Thursday night's presentation did little to allay residents' concerns. Consultants from AECOM – a company that provides various technical and support services for public and private clients – were brought in by the city. They developed several "worst case" scenarios that assessed risks to residents in the event of a catastrophic release.

These scenarios included three seismically caused events: a nitric acid breach into the last of three containment areas within the acid storage space; a spill of concentrated acid waste from a holding tank within the acid storage area and a plating-solution spill. In each case the relative risks of off-site exposure or impacts of an individual's exposure are low, the report found. The likelihood of these events occurring is moderate, in large part due to safety procedures such as triple containment vessels and securing of tanks to the walls.

But residents said the scenarios were not realistic and did not address their stated concerns, chief among which is a potentially catastrophic earthquake.

"We will have a large earthquake and that earthquake could devastate that entire facility. That's the scenario not modeled here," said resident Samir Tuma.

Residents said they want additional scenarios researched before the proposal goes to the council.

The study also did not assess the risk of benign chemicals accidentally combining with each other and becoming dangerous. CPI keeps potassium cyanide on its premises, and combined with cryogenic liquid hydrogen, the effects could be lethal, residents said.

The consultants relied on CPI's risk-management plans, a 2013 chemical management program and Palo Alto Fire Department incident and inspection reports to develop their study. But Roman Worobel, an AECOM safety engineer, admitted consultants did not ask for documents other than those CPI provided. Doing so was outside the scope of its contract with the city, he said.

Consultants also did not check if toxic gas sensors were working properly, and they did not obtain employee-training records from CPI as part of the study.

Barron Park resident Art Liberman called that omission "a worrying concern."

Two of the five potential worse-case scenarios AECOM presented concerned human error, and those incidents ranked as having a high impact on exposed residents. The risk of off-site exposure and relative likelihood of these events occurring is moderate, the study found.

The consultants' review of CPI's 2013 chemical management plan found that "operating procedures are lacking and need to be written for select operations ... These activities include but are not limited to the delivery, storage, use and disposal of special management chemicals." CPI did develop safe work procedures for handling cyanides, acids and bases, the consultants noted.

The consultants did make several recommendations related to improving training and records regarding some of CPI's most hazardous chemicals. The report also recommended an annual fire department inspection to confirm the facility is storing quantities of hazardous materials below state thresholds.

CPI has said it lowered the amount of chemicals on site, but the consultants did not verify those claims. The lower amount means the company no longer must submit risk-management plans to the Santa Clara County Department of Environmental Health.

Residents said they want the city to investigate if CPI is storing chemicals off-site to get around state limits. They said a large tanker has been parked on El Camino Real in front of CPI and no one knows what, if any, chemicals are stored there.

Residents voiced concerns that accidents could still be happening. As recently as Feb. 10, some residents heard a loud hissing sound and saw a large cloud rising from a CPI building, Romola Georgia said. She called 911, but never heard back about what occurred, she said.

Hillary Gitelman, director of planning and community environment, called the Feb. 10 event "troubling," and she promised to look into the incident. City Assistant Planner Aaron Aknin said staff would investigate the tanker and its contents.

Staff plans to present their zoning recommendations based on the hazardous-risk assessment to the City Council in late March or April. The proposal would go to the planning commission and then return to the council, Aknin said.

A new zoning code would not affect only CPI, but could also better define levels of hazardous-materials use and storage for plating shops and similar industrial processes as well as appropriate separation from residential areas, city officials have said. Another possible zone change could prohibit plating shops or facilities that use similar hazardous materials within 300 feet of residential areas.

CPI could be forced to move under a zoning change. The 2012 amortization study commissioned by the city determined that a 20-year period would be reasonable with the clock starting in 2006, the year CPI completed its most recent improvements to its plating shop.

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Like this comment
Posted by Bob Hill
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 22, 2014 at 7:15 am

That large tanker truck stored on El Camino Real is leaking liquide every day. Any person can walk by and see the long-term stains on the street pavement. The leking liquid is dissolving the asphalt street surface and washing into Matadero Creek with every rain.

Like this comment
Posted by Lena
a resident of University South
on Feb 22, 2014 at 11:01 am

No resident should have to live near a plant that could possibly harm their health. Chemical plants should be located well away from residential neighborhoods.

Like this comment
Posted by Dave Y
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 22, 2014 at 9:03 pm

[Post removed.]

Like this comment
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Feb 23, 2014 at 9:11 pm

Redwood City is working with SIMS in harbor area for conformance to EPA standards. Moffat Field is a super fund site with EPA participation in the clean-up.
Palo Alto needs to get the EPA involved - or someone does - to test and put clean-up plan in place. I don't think PA staff is knowledgeable in this topic - the city should step up the pace so that the company is cleaning up and in conformance with EPA standards.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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