Barron Park residents who have long complained about the perils of living next to a plating shop filled with toxic chemicals earned a long-awaited victory Monday night, when the City Council agreed to phase out the industrial operation next door and to impose new restrictions on hazardous materials.
By a unanimous vote, the council supported an ordinance calling for the amortization of Communications & Power Industries, a company based on Hansen Way that manufactures radio-frequency and microwave equipment. Despite arguments from CPI's executives, attorneys, environmental consultants and employees about the company's strong safety record and aggressive measures to prevent chemical spills and other accidents, the council sided with the residents who claimed the action is necessary and long overdue. Once the ordinance is approved, CPI would have until 2026 to either close its plating shop or move it to another part of the Stanford Research Park campus.
Romola Georgia, who was one of more than two dozen Barron Park residents to attend Monday's meeting, urged the council to restore safety back to the neighborhood. She and her neighbors have been calling for CPI's removal ever since the company consolidated its San Carlos operations into its current campus, expanding in the process its plating shop.
Between 2005 and 2008, the company was involved in at least three incidents that alarmed residents: a release of nitric acid gas into the air in February 2005 and several incidents of spilled chemicals (hydrochloric acid in one case; wastewater containing copper and nickel in another) in the spring of 2008.
Though there hadn't been any reported incidents since then, Georgia and other Barron Park residents argued that she and her residents remain concerned about the "geysers of unknown vapors," the alarms and sirens and the trucks delivering toxic contents so close to their homes.
"I believe the city erred when it approved moving CPI's operation from the industrial area in San Carols to just a few feet from our homes without any noticing to our neighborhoods," Georgia said. "It's time to rectify this error and remove this danger from Barron Park."
Markus Fromherz, president of Barron Park Association, submitted a letter offering the neighborhood group's "strong endorsement" of the staff proposals, which would begin the amortization process for CPI's plating shop and create a new policy requiring at least 300 feet of space between new companies with high quantities of toxic chemicals and "sensitive receptors" such as homes, schools and convalescent homes.
Barron Park neighbors, he wrote, had been "striving to work with the City of Palo Alto to remove the threat of the consequences of another and possibly more serious hazardous release caused by an industrial accident, equipment malfunction or natural disaster."
"It is time for the City Council to act, definitely, on this latest issues, and not send this back to staff for further modifications or ask for further studies," Fromherz wrote.
The ordinance requiring the amortization of CPI's plating shop was first requested by the council in October 2014. On Monday night, staff responded with a pair of ordinances: one pertaining specifically to CPI and another one that creates a new tier (known in the ordinance as "Tier 2") for heavy users of toxic chemicals. Companies in this tier would not be allowed to set up operations within 300 feet of homes, schools, daycare centers and other areas where inhabitants could be particularly vulnerable when it comes to impacts.
The council also decided to take this effort a step further when it directed staff to draft another ordinance that would downright ban facilities eligible for the highest category called "Tier 3" whose levels of toxic chemicals exceed the threshold in the California Accidental Release Prevention Program (also known as Title 19).
Currently, there are no Tier 3 facilities in Palo Alto. The council's decision Monday ensures that it will stay that way for a long time.
While the city's broad effort to regulate hazardous materials faced no real opposition, its decision to amortize CPI was met with protests from the company, which has been in Palo Alto since 1953 and is an offshoot of Varian Associates, an early tenant of Stanford Research Park.
Bob Fickett, president of CPI, was one of several company employees and consultants who argued that the amortization effort is unfair, illegal and ill-advised. They pointed to numerous studies performed by various consultants (some hired by CPI, others by the city) showing that a dangerous chemical event would be all but impossible (the only scenario that could potentially impact residents within 616 feet is one that was deemed "highly unrealistic" by the city's consultants; it involved a large earthquake causing the containment barriers to rupture, which in turn would cause hazardous materials to mix and create hydrogen cyanide).
"There's no realistic worst-case scenario that would or could cause danger to the neighbors," Fickett told the council.
He also submitted a letter arguing that the proposed ordinance "solely attacks CPI, and would have a significant and harmful impact on our business."
"This is an unnecessary and unfair action that overlooks both the proven fact of the safety of our operations and the investments we have made in the facility over our 60-year history in Palo Alto," Fickett wrote. "It unfairly penalizes our company, our employees, our owners and our investors for the unsupported fears of some Palo Alto residents."
The company, he wrote, has already reduced its storage and use of Title 19 chemicals by 75 to 85 percent, to the "lowest levels ever on site." The the March 2012 reduction brought CPI down from the higher tier of hazardous-material users to the lower, obviating the need for stricter regulations under the current law. CPI has invested in various safety measures, including perimeter sensors, alarm systems and backup safety systems, Fickett noted. And its inspection schedule with the Palo Alto Fire Department now includes unannounced additional inspections, "all of which have confirmed our operations are conducted in a safe manner," Fickett wrote. He also noted that since the company began operating in 1953, its operations have not caused harm to any member of the community.
"We ask that you treat our company and our 600 employees fairly and not single out CPI based only upon the unfounded fear of a few," Fickett wrote. "We ask that CPI be allowed to stay and continue to run our operations in the same safe manner that we currently do until the end of our lease with Stanford."
Other employees cited the company's safety record and testified that the company places a premium on safety. Sue Courchaine, who manages the plating shop and has been with the company for 37 years, said all of the shop's 16 employees have to participate in 70 mandatory job-training sessions every year. The company's training, inspections and audits are "very rigorous and very effective."
"I'm very proud to say we have never had a single injury from the use of our chemicals under my watch," Courchaine said.
But after hearing from both sides, the council decided that it's time to move ahead with the ordinance. Officials has been considering amortization since 2011, when the council first commissioned a study evaluating a reasonable time period for phasing out the operation (that period was deemed to be 20 years, with the clock starting in 2006, when CPI last made urgent upgrades to its plating shop). The amortization study was followed by numerous other studies, performed by both CPI's and the city's consultants, that evaluated at the risks posed by the CPI facility.
Last October, in addition to requesting the amortization ordinance, the council also directed staff to draft a broader law that would regulate new facilities with a high quantity of hazardous materials.
Councilman Greg Scharff made a motion Monday night to move ahead with both ordinances before proposing to outright ban Tier 3 facilities (the staff proposal would have merely regulated them and required a similar 300-foot distance between these facilities and "sensitive receptors").
Scharff also held out hope that the neighborhood residents and CPI will reach an agreement that would make both sides happy. The amortization law would give these conversations more urgency, he said.
"I'm not sure that there's not more of a win-win situation here, but I don't want to delay the process," Scharff said. "I think it's been delayed enough for the neighborhood. I want everyone to know it's moving on."
For CPI, however, moving on might be a tough proposition. Fickett said moving Building 2 (the plating shop) would make operations less efficient and more costly, taking away CPI's competitiveness. Given the difficulty of moving the plating operation, the company requested that amortization timeline be extended to 2042.
"It's really just a question of viability," Fickett said Monday night.
The council, however, agreed with Scharff that proposed ordinances are a good step to improving safety in Barron Park and beyond. The new laws would still need to be reviewed by the Planning and Transportation Commission before returning to the council at a future date for final approval.
Councilman Cory Wolbach said the ordinance "strikes the right balance."
"We've realized it's not just Barron Park residents but all of Palo Alto residents who should enjoy greater certainty of their safety in their neighborhoods," he said. "That's what this really is all about."
Councilman Marc Berman agreed and said he hopes the council's decision will lead to a mutually agreeable outcome.
"Everyone wants to do the right thing," Berman said. "Hopefully, with this process we can bring everyone to the table and come up with a solution everyone can feel good about."