News

Discovery of toxic chemical prompts changes in Stanford's housing project

Palo Alto reviews new plans for 1601 California Ave. after trichloroethylene is found in soil

A discovery of toxic vapors in the middle of a construction site has prompted Stanford University to redesign portions of its new faculty-housing development on California Avenue.

The project, known us University Terrace, includes 180 homes and is one of two developments that Stanford is entitled to build under a 2005 agreement with the City of Palo Alto. In April 2014, the city gave its official approval to the project, which includes single-family homes, duplexes and condominiums.

Recently, however, the project at 1451-1601 California Ave. suffered an unexpected setback: the discovery of trichloroethylene (TCE) in the soil. The compound, most often used as a degreaser for industrial operations, has been associated with kidney, liver and cervix cancers, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Stanford alerted its faculty and the residents in the nearby College Terrace neighborhood in the fall. It also alerted the state Department of Toxic Substances Control, which is now reviewing the university's planned measures to address the discovery.

Jean McCown, Stanford's assistant vice president in the Office of Government and Community Relations, said the university has also submitted a "slightly revised subdivision map to Palo Alto to reflect the adjustment of the location of a small number of the homes, as recommended by our consultant."

The discovery of toxic chemicals is, in itself not surprising, given the site's location in the Stanford Research Park, the home of many industrial operations. In 2004, when Stanford performed its initial environmental assessment for the site, it identified low levels of toxic chemicals, including polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) in the soil. More PCB was discovered at the 1601 California Ave. site in 2015, when Theranos' commercial lease for the property expired and the building slab was removed, allowing new soil tests. The contaminated soil was summarily removed, new materials were put in and the site was retested to ensure the chemicals are below the allowable level, according to the university.

The TCE discovery, however, presents a thornier challenge. The chemical can move as a vapor through soil and can pass through cracks and other openings in a building's structure, possibly affecting indoor air quality, according to Stanford. To address these impacts, the university has agreed to place 15 feet of clean soil over areas where elevated TCE levels were found, seal utility corridors to prevent vapor migration, put in vapor barriers under all homes and move homes away from areas where elevated TCE levels exist, according to the university, which created a "frequently asked questions" (FAQ) page to address the topic.

The plan was submitted to the Department of Toxic Substances Control, which would have to approve the mitigation. Stanford expects to hear back from the state agency this month or early 2016.

Meanwhile, College Terrace residents have been pursuing their own investigation on the topic. After Stanford alerted the residents last month about the TCE discovery, two members of the College Terrace Residents Association Board of Directors met with Stanford officials to discuss the findings of site analyses.

It was determined that the concentration of TCE was generally around 45 parts per billion (ppb) at 45 feet deep, well below the 130 ppb threshold used by the Water Quality Control Board to determine whether the chemical can get into indoor air. However, sampling at some areas had indicated a level significantly above 130 ppb, according to the neighborhood newsletter. Stanford hopes to mitigate these areas by covering them with up to 15 feet of clean soil to create what the university calls a "robust vertical buffer," according to the FAQ page.

"Over time, TCE naturally attenuates and the best and most effective way to deal with the unlikely event of vapor intrusion is to configure the project to create a buffer zone, place up to 15 feet of clean fill in areas with elevated TCE, and install protective vapor barrier systems underneath homes," according to the FAQ page.

Fred Balin, a College Terrace resident who wrote the update in the newsletter, said Stanford's actions and the recent investigations by College Terrace residents have suggested that the discovered TCE does not pose any danger to other parts of the neighborhood. Stanford, he said, appears to be doing the right thing in informing the public about its discoveries and in pursuing mitigations. At the same time, he and other residents want to make sure they remain informed, he said.

"We're not panicking, but we want to get all the information we can in terms of our neighborhood," Balin told the Weekly.

Palo Alto officials are also now in the process of reviewing Stanford's response. The city's Current Planning Manager Jodie Gerhardt told the Weekly that Stanford submitted on Wednesday a proposed amendment to the subdivision map. Staff will be reviewing the amendment to make sure the application remains consistent with the city's zoning code.

Under local law, amendments to parcel maps can be approved by the planning director and a city engineer without requiring new public hearings, provided that the revised project complies with the zoning code, remains consistent with the city's Comprehensive Plan, does not add any new lots, units or buildings and does not increase the subdivision's environmental impacts.

Stanford, for its part, does not expect the reviews to significantly delay the opening of the new homes. According to a webpage devoted to the project, the first homes are expected to open in the spring of 2017. The remaining homes would be completed by the second half of 2018.

Comments

11 people like this
Posted by JA3+
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 16, 2015 at 3:24 pm

Was TCE found in the groundwater under this property? If so, why do none of the TCE results show on the State of California's GeoTracker site?

"However, sampling at some areas had indicated a level significantly above 130 ppb, according to the neighborhood newsletter."

Where are the lab results? Are the results available via a public web site (e.g., a State of California web page)?


27 people like this
Posted by parent
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 16, 2015 at 3:55 pm

Can't believe that people are discussing this like a theoretical exercise. If I lived in the area and I had kids or was planning to have kids, I would move out immediately. Don't play games with your kids lives.


19 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 16, 2015 at 6:36 pm

No sweat. The TCE doubtless originated from an activity of one of Stanford's rent-paying industrial tenants. Stanford therefore has money to clean it up. (I wonder if Stanford returned the damage deposit.)


13 people like this
Posted by Fred Balin
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 16, 2015 at 9:20 pm

Fred Balin is a registered user.

TCE spill is not in the ground water, which is much further underground in this area of Research Park. This spill is therefore separate from the plumes originating from Page Mill Road properties many years ago, but does traverse under the property. Stanford’s consultant says this newly identified spill is confined. Department of Toxic Substances Control has not released anything to the public beyond the Voluntary Cleanup Agreement as of this time.


59 people like this
Posted by Ahem
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 16, 2015 at 9:27 pm

The "Mayfield" site (between Page Mill & Cal Ave) has been riddled with exploratory test wells for at least a decade. Why wasn't the TCE problem discovered earlier? The idea that the worst pollution might be directly under the offending facility should not have been a surprise. Why didn't the real-estate developer (AKA Stanford Land Management) disclose this to Palo Alto residents and the PACC, when they were seeking approval for the project?

People need to realize, there are two Stanfords. One is the academic institution we all know, and the other is Stanford Land Management. Stanford Land Management is just another sleazy real-estate developer eager to liquidate the quality of life in Palo Alto, for fun and profit.


50 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Dec 17, 2015 at 11:09 am

Ahem said
"People need to realize, there are two Stanfords. One is the academic institution we all know, and the other is Stanford Land Management. Stanford Land Management is just another sleazy real-estate developer eager to liquidate the quality of life in Palo Alto, for fun and profit."

This is an absolutely accurate statement! Thanks for making it!


4 people like this
Posted by Sea Reddy
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 17, 2015 at 11:52 am

College Terrace association is closely monitoring this activity and hope to guide Stanford to take the right action and inform the public.


28 people like this
Posted by JM
a resident of Stanford
on Dec 17, 2015 at 12:14 pm

If there is a toxic hotspot in the project that is not suitable for housing, then Stanford should just not build the housing, instead of trying to cram that housing into the project somewhere.

The project was already given a PC that allows them to build higher density as it is. Even the one row of single family dwelling along Cal Ave is built to the standard of College Terrace, which is s substandard lot... but City staff will probably just rubber stamp Stanford Land Management's distortion of the plan to cram the housing lost to the toxic hotspot in somewhere.


17 people like this
Posted by Luna
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 17, 2015 at 12:21 pm

I heard heavy equipment or trucks rumbling around, and sounding their back-up alarms, in the area of this project last night around 3:00am. Anybody know what's going on?


5 people like this
Posted by Polly Wanacracker
a resident of Professorville
on Dec 17, 2015 at 12:28 pm

"Anybody know what's going on?"

They're sneaking housing in under cover of darkness.


18 people like this
Posted by TB
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 17, 2015 at 1:38 pm

I live across the street from the site. I have heard heavy machinery in the middle of the night for the past few weeks. No idea what's going on but it could have to do with missed deadlines and the possible addition of a graveyard shift to try to make up time; plus the rains are coming.


26 people like this
Posted by anon
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Dec 17, 2015 at 1:54 pm

They are absolutely not allowed to work at that time of night unless they got an emergency permit to do so. any work outside of normal posted work hours should be reported to the non -emergency police number!


9 people like this
Posted by Mike
a resident of Mountain View
on Dec 17, 2015 at 4:05 pm

Ahem said
""People need to realize, there are two Stanfords."
People need to realize there are two Palo Altos. One is happy to have a great place to live and work and get rich and have their property values go through the roof, all largely due to Stanford. And the other is a self cogatulatory, elitist, "not in my neighborhood" bunch who talk like they are impoverished and powerless immigrants facing Love Canal.
(Look it up).


34 people like this
Posted by Art
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 17, 2015 at 4:42 pm

Stanford Land Management seems to be tripping over itself by announcing a remedy before the parameters of the contamination are even known! The spreading of new soil over the site seems to be - literally - a coverup. If the source of the TCE was an HP machine shop located on the site years ago, it is likely that the contamination has had time to reach down into the subsurface. Have ground waters been evaluated for TCE and associated chemical contamination? Have monitoring wells been sunk around the site to determine whether any TCE contaminated water has reached down into the subsurface Santa Clara formations? The College Terrace folks living nearby should review the complicated history with the MEWs Superfund site in Mountain View. TCE contamination at that site was found to have spread in subsequent years far from the initial location of the contamination, most likely via the sanitary or storm sewers. It is likely that an ongoing measurement program in the College Terrace neighborhood will be required to monitor the possibility of TCE vapor intrusion into homes and insure that the contamination levels in the subsurface waters in the neighborhood are below EPA standards (5 parts per billion.


11 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 18, 2015 at 12:17 am

"Stanford alerted its faculty and the residents in the nearby College Terrace neighborhood in the fall."

How extensive was this notification? I ask b/c I live nearby and was not notified.


Like this comment
Posted by Groundswell Technologies
a resident of another community
on Feb 22, 2016 at 10:02 am

Hello,

My colleagues and I have developed automated web based near real-time monitoring and alerting capabilities for resolving TCE vapor intrusion challenges. The system is capable of monitoring both indoors as well as subsurface concentration distributions, and can collect and analyze from up to 16 locations with a single platform. The system analyzes >100 samples/day. Response capabilities are on the order of minutes and all the data can be available through an intuitive web dashboard. This seems like it could immediately answer key questions raised, assist with mitigation design and provide remediation performance confirmation. For more info please see: Web Link.


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

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