The City Council may find itself Monday night caught in the crossfire between a local high-tech manufacturer and a group of Barron Park residents outraged over a series of toxic chemical releases.
In February 2006, a burst of nitric acid gas from Communications & Power Industries, LLC (CPI) startled and outraged nearby residents, raising safety concerns and prompting an examination of “right-to-know” laws.
CPI, which employs more than 650 people and makes products for medical, communications, defense, scientific and other applications, runs a plating shop on the property that uses potassium cyanide and nitric acid to clean metal.
In March 2008, another release occurred—this time about 10 gallons of 31 percent hydrochloric acid was dumped in a rear driveway, and about 60 gallons of an acid and water mix was released into a basement during a botched chemical delivery.
Then, in May 2008, nearly 50 gallons of diluted wastewater containing heavy metals was dumped into Matadero Creek.
Following the 2006 gas release, Barron Park residents pressured City Council into passing zoning regulations that require a conditional use permit to be obtained by any facility subject to the California Accidental Release Prevention Program, also known as Title 19.
One of those residents, Art Liberman, during Sunshine Week in March this year.
“The accident caused a huge furor, in part, because CPI evacuated their building but did not notify the Fire Department hazardous materials emergency responders,” wrote Liberman. “Nor did they notify any residents of the true nature or magnitude of the danger.”
Since CPI was already in business when the Title 19 regulations took effect in 2006, however, they were grandfathered in, much to the chagrin of Barron Park residents.
So the City decided to study another option: amortization.
According to two California Supreme Court decisions cited in a staff report to City Council, the City has the legal authority to force a facility that is non-compliant with Title 19 to phase out its operations, provided the company has enough time to recoup its investment.
A separate report also to be presented Monday night found that 14 years would be an adequate amount of time for CPI to do that with its plating shop.
CPI claims, however, in its own report to presented Monday night, that they are already in compliance with Title 19.
“CPI is proud to announce that, as of March 2012, CPI has successfully reduced its on-site storage and use of nitric acid and potassium cyanide to below Title 19 thresholds,” according to the report.
Highlighting a “commitment to safety” and its longstanding contributions to the city, CPI says that Santa Clara County representatives and Palo Alto Fire Department staff toured their facility to verify the amounts of Title 19 chemicals on site.
The County later verbally confirmed that CPI has indeed come into compliance, according to the company. City staff have not yet seen that in writing, however.
If and when they do, Council can nonetheless decide to change the zoning regulations in order to prohibit plating shops and other facilities using similar hazardous materials within 300 feet of residential zones, and to force CPI to amortize its plating shop.
Or, the City could base the prohibition on the amount of toxic chemicals being used as opposed to proximity to residences. If they do that, the new rules would require advice from hazmat experts, and could affect other businesses throughout the city that are next to homes.
A final option would be for the City to essentially mediate the conflict and bring residents and CPI representatives to the table to agree on further chemical use reductions, and if necessary impose regulations at a later time.
Now it’s up to the Council to decide how hard it wants to come down on CPI.
Council at 6:00 p.m., then will tackle this issue during open session around 7 p.m.