Palo Alto Weekly

News - April 27, 2012

Palo Alto orders analysis of CPI's toxic risk

City seeks to quell community concerns about chemicals at Barron Park site

by Gennady Sheyner

Faced with protests from Barron Park residents over toxic materials at a nearby plating shop, Palo Alto officials on Monday, April 23, commissioned new studies to determine the risk level and consider possible options for managing the risk.

The City Council's decision to pursue further analysis followed testimony from top staff at Communications & Power Industries (CPI) and from more than a dozen Barron Park neighborhood residents who urged council members to begin the process of ushering CPI out of their neighborhood. The company is located at 607 Hansen Way.

Though council members expressed concern about residents' health and safety, they concluded that they don't have enough information to determine the exact nature of the threat or to make a decision on what to do about it.

The 8-0 vote (Mayor Yiaway Yeh was absent) was the latest chapter in the six-year dispute between CPI and its neighbors. The company made upgrades to its plating shop in 2006, when it moved a product line from San Carlos to Palo Alto. It attracted scrutiny several months later when it released nitric acid into the air, prompting reports of an unusual smell from the Chimalus neighborhood. Concerns magnified in March 2008, when CPI spilled water containing hydrochloric acid in the rear driveway, and two months later, when the company accidentally dumped about 50 gallons of wastewater containing copper and nickel into Matadero Creek.

Since then, CPI has upgraded its risk-management procedures and delivery protocols to prevent future calamities and reduced the amount of hazardous materials stored on the site. Bob Fickett, the company's president and chief operating officer, said the amounts of potassium cyanide and nitric acid at the company's site are now below the threshold of Title 19, a state law that restricts the amount of chemicals a company can store before it has to add safety measures.

Fickett told the council Monday the company takes the safety of its workers and nearby residents very seriously and that it has been working for the past five years to reduce the amount of hazardous materials at its site. He said that CPI's facilities are monitored around the clock and that a trained employee oversees each delivery of chemicals. Fickett also said that the company, which manufactures microwave and radio-frequency equipment, employs about 650 workers and has no plans to relocate in any foreseeable future. Any attempt by the city to force it to move would be unlawful, Fickett said.

"We've done a tremendous amount, and we will continue to focus our efforts here," Fickett said. "While neighbors and the community are very important to us, our employees and their well-being is equally important."

But residents weren't convinced. One after another, they asserted to the council that an industrial operation containing hazardous chemicals has no business being so close to single-family homes. Samir Tuma, who lives on Chimalus Drive near the CPI site, praised the company for taking steps in recent years to reduce its levels of hazardous materials. But even with these actions, he said, the company's proximity to the residential neighborhood does not make sense.

"This plating shop is right behind our neighborhood," Tuma said. "A plating shop with potassium cyanide and nitric acid does not belong right next door to our neighborhood."

Council members agreed and said the CPI plating shop would not have been approved today. The company has occupied the site since 1953.

This won't be the first time that the council is commissioning a study to help it deal with this problem. Last year, the consultant CB Richard Ellis completed an amortization study to determine a reasonable period for CPI to phase out its operations. The consultant determined that a 20-year period would be reasonable with the clock starting in 2006, the year CPI completed its most recent improvements. Had the council pursued the amortization option as Barron Park residents had urged, CPI would have 14 years to move its plating shop elsewhere.

Now that CPI is no longer a Title 19 facility, the council is taking a look at its options and reassessing its definition of a hazardous facility.

Councilman Pat Burt proposed Monday hiring a third party within 30 days to consider different hazard assessments. The consultant would also evaluate the best practices for management of hazardous materials and compare them with CPI's practices and recommend possible risk thresholds that could be considered for a zoning amendment.

Burt's colleagues agreed that more analysis is needed given the wide range of views expressed at Monday's meeting. They also accepted Councilwoman Gail Price's proposal that once the consultant's study is complete, the city would take the appropriate action within six months.

Councilmen Larry Klein and Sid Espinosa both lauded CPI and its recent efforts. But both ultimately agreed that the company's proximity to the residential homes is troubling.

"It's true that if we were starting from scratch, and we're not, that we wouldn't approve it, and we wouldn't have it so close to the neighborhood," Espinosa said. "I think the additional information would prove critical."

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.

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