A proposal championed by Barron Park residents to ban businesses with large stockpiles of toxic chemicals from setting up shop in Palo Alto advanced Wednesday when it won the endorsement of the city's Planning and Transportation Commission.
With little discussion and no dissent, the commission approved two ordinances pertaining to toxic chemicals: one creating new regulations and restrictions for facilities with hazardous materials, and another that pertains specifically to Communication & Power Industries (CPI), the company whose plating shop on Hansen Way in the Barron Park neighborhood triggered the discussion.
The latter proposal, which is consistent with the City Council's direction, would require the company to move its plating shop so that it would be more than 300 feet from the residential properties by 2026.
The ideas of amortizing CPI and tightening the rules emerged about a decade ago, spurred by three separate accidents involving the firm's plating shop, which was upgraded and expanded in 2006. The last of these occurred in 2008 and involved a discharge of 50 gallons of wastewater containing with nickel and copper into Matadero Creek.
While the city adopted new rules in 2007 to prohibit companies who exceed a state Fire Code threshold for hazardous chemical (known as Title 19) from operating within 300 feet of residential shops, this change ceased to apply to CPI when the company reduced its chemical stock, thus falling below the threshold.
The new ordinance would, in effect, take the existing two-tiered system and add a third tier. Companies with small amounts of hazardous materials would remain in what's known as "Tier 1" and would continue to be subject to the existing requirement that they submit inventories of their chemicals to the Palo Alto Fire Department and create emergency response plans. Those companies that exceed Title 19 thresholds would now be prohibited from operating altogether (none such companies currently exist in Palo Alto).
Aside from this prohibition, biggest change in the new ordinance would be the creation of a middle tier -- one that would include companies like CPI. These companies fall below the state's Title 19 threshold but above a lower threshold set by the Santa Clara County Department of Environmental Health. Such companies would be allowed to operate, though not within 300 feet of residential zones and "sensitive receptor" sites such as schools and day care centers.
The new ordinances have been years in the making. The city had commissioned an amortization study in 2011, which indicated that it would be reasonable for the city to establish 20 years as the amortization period (this means CPI would be forced to relocate in 2026, 20 years after it last made a major investment in the plating shop).
The company's own amortization study offered 40 years as a more realistic period. The city also performed a risk assessment, which indicated that a hazardous incident is extremely unlikely to occur but that could be possible if a massive earthquake causes the mixing of chemicals. Such an event, while highly unlikely, could impact residents 616 feet from the site -- an area that includes a section of the Barron Park neighborhood.
Several residents from the neighborhood attended Wednesday's hearing and urged the commission to support the ordinance and bring the long process closer to conclusion.
Samir Tuma, who lives on Chimalus Drive, accused CPI of trying to obfuscate and create delays, even though the company and the residents have all known for years that the "clock is ticking" on the amortization period.
"It's time to get this going. You can't back down. You've got to stick up to them and do the right thing," Tuma said.
The proposals have been vigorously opposed by CPI, which has been based at its Stanford Research Park location since 1953. Much like in prior hearings, company officials stressed on Wednesday CPI's strong record and commitment to safety.
Tom Grant, vice president of engineering for the company's microwave power products division, called the new ordinance's middle tier "unnecessary" and alluded to various third-party inspections that confirmed the safety of CPI's operations. The proposal, he said, "specifically targets CPI and our manufacturing processes and facilities in Palo Alto."
"Although we wish it were otherwise, we expect that this process is driven by fear, not scientific fact," Grant said.
Elizabeth Lake, an attorney representing CPI, called the ordinances "fundamentally flawed" and maintained the company's right to fight them through litigation.
"If the city proceeds on its present course without modifying the ordinances, CPI will have no choice but to challenge the ordinances in court," Lake wrote in a letter to City Attorney Molly Stump. "CPI is confident that the courts will overturn the ordinances as presently written."
Lake also noted, however, that the company is encouraged by the council's direction to city staff that the city attempt to reach a settlement with CPI that would avoid a lengthy legal process. The company, Lake wrote, "is prepared to work with your office, City staff and the City Council to reach an outcome the meets the legitimate needs of all stakeholders in the community."
The commission ultimately went along with the council's and staff's proposals and recommended that they be approved without any modifications.
Commissioner Eric Rosenblum concurred with the neighborhood residents that the proposal "has been a long time coming" and that the council had already signaled its desire to move ahead with the new restrictions. The vote ended up unanimous, with Kate Downing and Greg Tanaka recusing themselves from the discussion because their live near CPI.