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Our Town: Inviting Romic to leave

Original post made by Tyler Hanley, digital editor of Palo Alto Online, on Jun 20, 2006

For years, Romic Environmental Technologies was East Palo Alto's largest employer and most successful business. The company, which recycles hazardous industrial wastes, predates the city's incorporation in 1983.

Located near the end of Bay Road near the tip of Cooley Landing, large tanker trucks go to and from the industrial complex, a hard-hat type of place that deals with highly dangerous chemicals.
But the city has grown up in the last decade. The Four Seasons Hotel opened earlier this year as part of University Circle while IKEA and Home Depot draw shoppers to the city in droves in the evening and on weekends.

A neighborhood of new homes has been built behind the shopping center as the city continues its maturation.

A plant processing hazardous chemicals, long tolerated by city officials, is no longer seen as desirable.

And not just because of what happened June 5, either.
Late that night, a chemical reaction occurred in a tanker truck holding 4,000 gallons of volatile organic compounds. The chemicals spewed out in a cloud that drifted over the adjacent Baylands. People living near Romic were advised to shelter in place -- stay inside with doors and windows closed.

The next day, a platoon of federal, state and county officials descended on the plant, investigating what happened.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency later released a report stating that the mist of chemicals dissipated quickly into the air. But a sticky residue of tiny black dots was left on the nearby baylands that "is not likely to be harmful unless one comes in direct contact with the material."

For Mayor Ruben Abrica and other East Palo Alto officials, enough is enough.

"It's time for them to leave," he said. "It's another reminder that things can go wrong. We are concerned over what can happen to our residents. It poses a danger to residents."

The City Council sent a letter last year to the state Department of Toxic Substances Control, the state agency regulating Romic, opposing the company's application to the state to expand its operation by adding more storage and treatment tanks. The permit for expansion is still pending.

In 2005, Romic paid the state $849,500 to settle 53 safety violations between 1999 and 2004. Many of those were seemingly minor infractions, such as mislabeling something, but how minor can an infraction be when dealing with dangerous chemicals?

Romic also paid the state $106,000 in fines in 1996 after an accident badly injured a worker.

In November 1995, Romic accidentally discharged cyanide into the treatment system of the Palo Alto Wastewater Treatment Plant, leading to protests from community groups about Romic's continued presence in the community.

One of the more frightening aspects of the June 5 tanker-truck discharge is that more than a week later Romic officials still weren't sure what was in the truck or why the reaction occurred. Chris Stampolis, Romic's director of community relations, said the company is still figuring out what happened.

"We know what was on the (truck's) manifest," he said.

There's a second irritant to city officials. In 2004, East Palo Alto voters passed a tax on any company that deals with hazardous wastes (there being one such company in town). Romic has refused to pay and has appealed the tax administratively to the city. It's a hefty tax, amounting to 10 percent of the company's annual gross revenues.

A legal battle may be brewing at least a volatile as the contents of the tanker.

"We don't want to get into a legal dispute with them," Abrica said. But he would like the city, the company, the state and Romic's client corporations to sit down and cooperatively find a new location for Romic, away from population centers. A military base might be one possibility, he said.

"We need them to leave, in a good way, that won't cost them," Abrica said.

Romic has become a pariah.

"The community in no way benefits from having Romic here," Councilwoman Pat Foster said. "It needs to go somewhere else."

-- Don Kazak


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