New rules for hazardous chemicals advance in Palo Alto

Planning and Transportation Commission endorses proposal to add new restrictions for toxic materials; phase out CPI's plating shop

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.

Related content:

Residents question chemical-hazards report for CPI

Palo Alto to re-examine CPI's hazardous materials

100-gallon acid spill at Palo Alto manufacturer

Chemical fumes seep into neighborhood

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5 people like this
Posted by Ben Weinstein
a resident of another community
on Jan 28, 2016 at 7:29 am

I was cleaning my dishwasher out last night with a product called Lime Out; it's sold allover for removing hard water salts and calcium build-up. My hands began to sting so I looked up on line the Safety Data Sheet. It innocently listed as a content 7% hydrogen chloride. Sounds innocent enough but hydrogen chloride, HCl, is better known as hydrochloric acid or muriatic acid. This is a HAZARDOUS MATERIAL but carefully disguised as a household cleaning product. How much hazardous material does the average household have under their sink or out in the garage? How low will this tiered system go? When will the HAZ MAT POLICE show up at your doorstep?

5 people like this
Posted by David Theil
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 28, 2016 at 11:35 am

Ben has a darn good point. Muriatic acid can be purchased at the hardware store by anybody and dumped down any drain. I have no insight into the concentration of HCl in the 10-20 gallon spill in 2008 that got everyone's underpants in a wad:

Web Link

A little online snooping shows that the pH required for nickel plating is in between 4.7 and 5.1 . The pH of the human stomach (which also makes use of Hydrochloric Acid) is between 1.5 and 3.5 . With pH a logarithmic scale (and lower means more acidic) stomach acid is about 300 times more acidic than plating solution. No puking in the creek!

Like this comment
Posted by resident
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Jan 28, 2016 at 11:54 am

I don't understand why the City is allowing this bullying. If a resident moved into the neighborhood next to CPI, this was a choice they made. Forcing CPI to move incurs an expense to CPI, while it creates a benefit (financial) to the neighborhood. It would seem if the residents are upset they moved next to a plating shop, they should transfer their financial benefit to offset CPI's expense. That would be the fair handling.

Maybe I'll buy a house on a busy road, and then expect the City to remove the road, since of course busy roads are a safety hazard.

2 people like this
Posted by Too late
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 28, 2016 at 11:58 am

Resident-- a former city councilmembers tried that. She lived on a very busy city street and during her 8 yeras on the council she tried to cut the number of lanes, install traffic circles, etc so that she would not be personally disturbed.

2 people like this
Posted by Reasonable Response
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jan 28, 2016 at 2:24 pm

While we all thrive with communicating to the nth degree on our amazing hand held devices, consider the many who work with known hazards to bring these devices to market. Many regulations and inspections by City, County State and Federal regulators have resulted in controls and ameliorations. Do we want jobs to continue leaving the State?

2 people like this
Posted by gregory
a resident of Ventura
on Jan 28, 2016 at 4:14 pm

[Portion removed] these are real jobs for people who aren't app developers and they have an excellent safety record. This kind of ugly petulance does real harm. [Portion removed.] Some of us make a living with our hands, but I guess you don't want to see that, just use their products and services and long as is done somewhere else.

Like this comment
Posted by neighbor
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 28, 2016 at 5:35 pm

The comments above are clearly made by people who don't know the history and the facts around this issue with CPI. Most of the people living in the neighborhood lived here before CPI consolidated operations from another location into its Palo Alto facility and introduced this plating facility in our backyard. All we are doing is working on recovering the safe neighborhood we moved into, and in the process making sure all of Palo Alto will be safer for its residents in the long run.

Like this comment
Posted by Mark
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 28, 2016 at 9:29 pm

Some of the prior comments make it appear that CPI has only small amounts of hazardous materials and Chimalus residents are making a big deal out of this. Not true. If you look a little deeper, CPI has tons and tons of really, really bad chemicals on hand. And not only acids, but also cyanides, which if they somehow came in contact with the acids, generate hydrogen cyanide - deadly, deadly gas chamber gas. This is a big deal. Second point, in the mid 1980's CPI (actually it was still Varian, before the split-off) had an accident in a plating shop - a fire that caused big evacuation and fire and scare of the whole community. Final point, residents are not upset with CPI employees and sympathize with them. Its the CPI management who put $$ in front of everything else, arrogantly refused to listen to experts who told them to NOT rebuild plating shop in the same place in 2006. So, now they will be paying the price.

Like this comment
Posted by Richard C. Placone
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 28, 2016 at 10:54 pm

The comments to this article remind me of the GOP debates - i.e., long on hysteria and short on facts. It is one thing to disagree with the position taken by the residents most effected, but to start name calling, as "hysterical housewives", "liberal do gooders" and so on is uncharacteristic of the Palo Alto population, or at least I like to think so.

There is a fundamental error in the story - CPI has been here since around 2006, when they moved their plating shop from a San Carlos industrial park to the former Varian Associates site. (CPI is a spin off from Varian) The Varian operation was very low key and the management of the company was very neighborhood friendly and a concerned neighbor. I know this since I have lived here since 1962.

Charges made by some commenters claim that people have moved in to an existing situation and now are trying to drive CPI out. That is not true. While I haven't taken a census, my observation is that most of the people on Chimalus have been here long predating the CPI situation. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that these are actual CPI shills. They sound exactly like the the team of outside professionals CPI's has hired or its legal and PR staff whose job it is to attend the council meetings and then speak as if they are actually resident, of Chimalus Drive.

Richard Placone

Like this comment
Posted by Fred Balin
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 31, 2016 at 3:32 pm

Fred Balin is a registered user.

As per a number of years ago, there two Title 19 sites on Stanford lands under County of Santa Clara jurisdiction: the "ice house" power generation facility and the SLAC. Can someone verify whether that is still the case. Thank you.

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

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