Seeking to clear the air in the toxic feud between Barron Park residents and Communication & Power Industries (CPI), Palo Alto officials on Monday threw their support behind a compromise that would give the manufacturer more time to relocate its controversial plating shop.
In exchange, the company would agree to move the facility completely off site, rather than simply beyond the 300-foot buffer zone established by a hazardous-materials law that the City Council also passed Monday night.
By a unanimous vote, the council approved two ordinances with the same goal: keeping hazardous materials away from residential zones. The first of these would apply to all industrial areas and create a new prohibition on facilities whose stockpiles of hazardous materials exceed the threshold in the California Accidental Release Prevention Program. The law also creates a new tier for facilities with hazardous-materials levels that fall below that threshold but above a lower threshold established by the State Health and Safety Code. These facilities would now be prohibited from setting up shop within 300 feet of schools, day care centers, convalescent homes and other sites with populations deemed to be particularly sensitive to the chemicals' potentially harmful effects.
The new tier, known as Tier 2, includes CPI's plating shop, which stands within 100 feet of a portion of Barron Park. The company, which was originally part of Varian and manufactures microwave and radio-frequency equipment, significantly expanded its local presence in 2006, when it consolidated its San Carlos operations in Palo Alto. Since then, CPI had on three occasions discharged hazardous materials, most recently in May 2008, when it released about 50 gallons of wastewater with nickel and copper into Matadero Creek.
The incidents triggered a protracted battle between Barron Park residents calling for the plating shop's closure and company executives who consistently maintained that their operations are completely safe. In the years since the incidents, the company reduced its supply of hazardous materials and added safeguards to prevent future accidents.
An analysis by the city's consultant, AECOM, concluded that while risk to residents is very low, an "extreme event" could potentially release nitric acid into the neighborhood. The city then commissioned an amortization study, which indicated that it would be reasonable for the city to give CPI until 2026 to move the facility away from its present site.
On Monday night, the council reaffirmed its intention to move ahead with the amortization when it voted to approve a second ordinance, focusing specifically on CPI. Under this ordinance, the company will have to relocate the plating shop at least 300 feet away from residences by 2026. Yet the council's vote also left the door open to a compromise. Under a proposal that the city hopes to strike with CPI in the coming weeks, the company would have an extra five years to move (or close) the shop, provided it moves it completely off site, rather than just to another section of Stanford Research Park.
This alternative was a response to both CPI's vehement opposition to the city's amortization plans and to the City Council's request in November 2015 that staff pursue a solution that would please all parties. The Monday discussion suggested that the effort is bearing fruit.
On Monday, Barron Park residents who have been involved in fighting CPI for the past decade grudgingly accepted the compromise suggested by staff. Art Liberman, who has been leading the effort, said that while he's not thrilled about the additional five years, he and his neighbors can accept the proposed agreement because it will create "a clearly established endpoint" and set a time when residents can "breathe easily, figuratively and literally."
"I think the majority of residents support it, provided that the settlement is watertight," Liberman said.
Under the agreement approved by the council Monday, CPI would have to declare by the end of 2021 whether it wishes to exercise its five-year option and commit to completely closing the shop by the end of 2031. The relocation, according to the ordinance, "would be irrevocable."
So far, CPI has fiercely resisted the city's effort to move its plating shop. In November, several company officials spoke out against the proposed ordinances as unnecessary and unfair. Company CEO Bob Fickett said safety is the company's top concern and maintained that the plating shop causes no danger.
"There is no realistic worst-case scenario that would or could cause danger to the neighbors," Fickett said at the Nov. 16 meeting.
The company also intimated that it would go to court to protest the new requirements. In December, the company's attorney, Elizabeth Lake, notified the city in a letter that the company found the city's amortization schedule, and the 2026 deadline, "categorically unacceptable" and unlawful under both the state and federal law. Specifically, the company argued, the ordinance "would deprive CPI of its vested state and federal rights to due process, compensation for regulatory takings, and equal protection under the California and Federal Constitution and laws."
Nevertheless, she wrote that, "we believe that there is, or should, be room for CPI to reach a compromise with the City regarding the proposed amortization terms that would be mutually satisfactory."
On Monday, several council members expressed hope that this point has now been reached. Vice Mayor Greg Scharff thanked city staff, CPI officials and neighborhood leaders for their work on the compromise. It would be "an incredible example of a neighborhood and a company working together" on a solution, he said.
"I think it's a great win for the community that we're at this point and finally moving this forward," Scharff said.
Councilwoman Liz Kniss commended the Barron Park residents for pursuing a solution in a "neighborly way" and said it was a pleasure to support the two ordinances.
Councilman Cory Wolbach concurred and said it was great to see the two sides find "some level of conciliatory resolution" on a difficult issue.
"Thanks everyone for coming to the table and having these difficult discussions and being willing to consider a healthy compromise," Wolbach said.