Barron Park Community Mobilizes as City Council Changes Zoning, Limiting Hazardous Materials Near Residential Areas

Art Liberman — 2/19/07

It would be nice to think that the rural atmosphere of Barron Park insulates us from the unpleasant side effects of the industrial activity in the Stanford Research Park, that it protects us from any contamination that might seep into the ground or toxic vapors that might spew in the air. Were that it would be so! What has protected our neighborhood environment — and preserved its rural atmosphere as well — has been the vigilance by concerned and knowledgeable residents and the resolve by the community as a whole to act collectively and exert its political strength at several key junctures. Barron Park is a community that has a few donkeys grazing in a pasture, not a heard of ostriches with their heads buried in the sand.

When organic solvents were found to have contaminated the waters underneath Barron Park in the late 1980' s, the Barron Park community, led by Inge Harding-Barlow and Bob Moss, mobilized and brought the problem to the attention of the State Department of Toxics Substances Control (DTSC). The solvents leaked from waste tanks and containment facilities at several industrial sites, mixed with the subsurface waters and spread widely under the residences in our neighborhood. The DTSC forced the polluters to identify the sources of the contamination and then to plan, finance and execute an extensive cleanup. Many years later, the contamination measured in the many observation wells sprinkled around Barron Park has now dropped to below the EPA drinking water standard.

This same resolve showed up again this past January 22 when the City Council chambers were packed by over one hundred residents. They had come to hear the Council discuss and vote on a proposal to modify the zoning ordinances to restrict the amounts of extremely hazardous materials that could be used and stored near residential zones and to require a buffer zone for future projects. The packet of letters sent in during the previous two weeks on the subject to the Council was as thick as the Palo Alto phone book.

The event that led to that City Council meeting occurred almost one year earlier, on February 2nd of 2006. An accident involving hazardous materials in Building #2 of Communications and Power Industries (CPI) on 811 Hansen Way caused a release of toxic nitric acid vapors that spread into the residential area on Chimalus Drive. Several residents and construction workers reported smelling an irritating, acrid, choking odor, and a worker on the roof at 728 Chimalus said afterwards that the fumes nearly caused him to faint and fall from his perch.1 Fortunately, this accident did not cause any long term serious injuries. But because this facility is so close to residences and handles such large amounts of extremely hazardous materials, a natural disaster or another industrial accident in the future could have much more serious repercussions.

Past Toxic Gas Releases in the Stanford Industrial Park. Last February' s release of toxic fumes was not the first toxic gas release from companies in the Stanford Industrial Park. Neither was it the first from the CPI/Varian complex. On the Sunday before Thanksgiving in 1985, an electrical fault in some equipment at Varian on Hansen Way, in a facility where the newspaper reports said acids were used as part of a plating process, caused a fire and sent hydrochloric acid vapors into the air.2 The vapors drifted towards the motel and Fish Market Restaurant along El Camino and away from Barron Park. According to news reports in the San Jose Mercury3, the worry that fumes from another toxic gas release from Varian might drift in the other direction towards residences in Barron Park set John Joynt, then president of the Barron Park Association, into action. He and Inge Harding-Barlow initiated the plan for a neighborhood-wide evacuation exercise that the BPA and the City carried out in 1987.

Ironically, just hours after that evacuation exercise, a real chemical leak occurred at a Watkins-Johnson building on Hillview Ave4. The Fire Department hazardous materials team responded and asked the nearest Barron Park neighbors, Bo and Dorothy Hassett at 975 Roble Ridge, to evacuate their homes and to inform their neighbors. Just a few months earlier, in December of 1986, there was a leak of arsine gas at General Instruments, also on Hillview.5 Just as CPI didn' t inform the authorities after their toxic gas release last year, General Instruments didn' t contact the Fire Department after this release, in violation of city ordinances, and was assessed a financial penalty. The most serious release of toxic fumes in terms of the number of people injured involved a release of nitric acid fumes in June 1991 at Coherent on Porter Drive6. According to the news report in the Times Tribune, the release forced the evacuation of dozens of employees and sent at least seven people to the hospital.

Hazardous Materials at CPI. Over the past twenty years, there has been a heightened awareness of environmental issues by businesses and the City, and an overall strengthening of city and state regulations. Most of the companies that were the sources of the hazardous materials releases and who contaminated our underground waters in the past have changed their operations, left the Stanford Research Park or moved those hazardous materials activities elsewhere.

However there is one exception. CPI, spun off from Varian in the mid 90' s, did just the opposite. Two years ago, CPI decided to consolidate all of its California manufacturing operations in Palo Alto. They closed their facility in an industrial area of San Carlos, and rebuilt and enlarged the plating shop in Palo Alto, which included an increase in their inventory of extremely hazardous materials. Varian had originally built this plating shop and associated hazardous materials storage facilities in the early 60' s, before Barron Park was part of Palo Alto. Varian positioned them at the very back of their site on Hansen Way, even though the houses on Chimalus were already there. The plating shop is on the 2nd floor, on the side of the building facing the houses and the hazardous chemical bunker storage area is against the back wall of the CPI site that abuts the residential zone.

After the accident last February, I asked the Fire Department, who decides on the hazardous material permits for building projects, if special rules apply to hazardous materials use near residences, if the neighbors next to CPI should have been notified when CPI was rebuilding and increasing the amounts of hazardous materials, and if there were limits as to how much hazardous materials they could have on their site. The answer was, briefly — no, no and no.

Without any notification to the residents, in 2005 the Planning Department allowed CPI to rebuild the plating shop to increase its manufacturing capacity, which also involved increasing its inventory of extremely hazardous materials. To many of us in the neighborhood, in hindsight, the decision by the City was completely irrational. Many current residents were not aware of the level of risk to them and their families before the expansion. Allowing a manufacturing facility already using large amounts of extremely hazardous within 100 feet of residences in Palo Alto to expand appeared to be a decision made in reckless disregard of the health and safety of those residents.

Plating operations involve many particularly noxious and toxic chemicals. Why did the City allow them to rebuild it in the same place, on the side of the old Varian building overlooking the houses rather than somewhere else on their site, further away? It was simply because nothing in the City' s zoning code limited how much hazardous material a company could have, nor how close to residences they could be used or stored. Community activism after the toxic gas releases of the 1980' s focused on the evacuation exercise; this time the focus was on changing these zoning codes so as to not allow this to happen again!

Arguments for Changing the Zoning Codes. We brought a new element to the table, or at least one that the City had never considered when previous zoning ordinances had come up. It was necessary and logical, we argued, in land use planning to include off site consequences of an accidental release of hazardous materials into residential areas. If you lived or worked near a site that used large amounts of extremely hazardous materials, the consequences of an accident could be disastrous.

If an accident at such a site were to happen near your home, don' t you think you deserve to know whether you would be affected? What constitutes extremely hazardous materials? And if there are such sites near our homes, what would be the off site consequences of an accident? Actually, the State of California has had regulations in place since the early 90' s that answers these questions. The California Accidental Release Program (CalARP) section of Title 19 is the current program, passed by the legislature in 1999 with final regulations issued in 20047.

The Title 19 regulations identify a set of extremely hazardous materials and the threshold amounts of each material. The County Department of Environmental Health administers this program. There are just twenty five Title 19 sites in Santa Clara County. Only two are in the city of Palo Alto: one is the waste water treatment plant near the Bay; the other is CPI, just over the back fence from homes of residents of Barron Park.

Title 19 Hazardous Materials at CPI. CPI has two particularly hazardous chemicals, nitric acid and potassium cyanide, both in quantities that are many times the Title 19 thresholds.

The following graphs show the Title 19 thresholds on the left, along with the amounts of these materials at CPI in 2004 and after their expansion 2006. CPI has a 250 gallon storage tank of nitric acid that alone holds more than 2000 lbs. The rest of the nitric acid is in tanks in the plating shop. Some of the potassium cyanide is in solid form in storage drums in chemical storage area, but the bulk is also in tanks in the plating shop, including one 275 gallon tank with over 175 lbs of cyanide in solution.

The State requires the operators of a site with hazardous materials above Title 19 threshold levels to submit a Risk Management Plan (RMP). That is where the previously mentioned information on nitric acid and potassium cyanide was disclosed. Besides listing the amounts of the hazardous materials above the Title 19 threshold levels, the RMP also must present several serious accident scenarios that could lead to accidental releases, and the off site consequences of those releases. These releases might occur due to any number of reasons, including a natural disaster such as an earthquake. Earthquakes in particular are a significant concern because the entire emergency response scenario assumes that the Hazardous Response Unit of the PAFD would be able to respond immediately. In the case of a major earthquake, we do not have any idea of how long it would take for the PAFD to respond, nor what their first priority would be when they would be able to respond.

The series of events that led to the release of nitric acid vapors on Feb 2nd from CPI was not one of the accident scenarios proposed by CPI in their Risk Management Plan, nor was it considered in their hazard review or anywhere else in that document. It proves the point that you can' t predict all accidents; as the maxim says: — you can hope for the best, but you must prepare for the worst.

One of release scenarios CPI identified in their RMP involves a rupture of their large nitric acid storage tank, resulting in a much larger spill of nitric acid and consequently a much larger nitric acid vapor release. In addition, the acids and potassium cyanide are in close proximity to each other in the plating shop, and CPI recognizes both could spill and mix together following an earthquake, and chemically react. This would produce deadly hydrogen cyanide gas, one of the most toxic of all gases. It is all the more dangerous because it has a faint bitter almond odor that some people do not smell at all, not an acrid or irritating odor like nitric acid, that makes people quickly aware of the existence of a dangerous situation.

The Possible Consequences of an Accidental Release at CPI. Once an accident scenario is defined, the extent of the offsite consequences is determined under CalARP/Title 19 regulations with standardized rules and computer models. For releases of toxic gases, the area affected extends to where the toxic vapors would dissipate to the level at which serious injuries from short-term exposures would no longer occur.

The impact of a serious accidental release on the community of the type that CPI disclosed in their RMP indicates the health and safety of a large number of people in Barron Park would be imperiled. The following figure shows the area that could be affected from a serious accident that sent nitric acid vapor or hydrogen cyanide vapor fumes into the air.

The circle extends about 1000' ft, 1/5 of a mile. It is not a surprise that the City Council chambers were packed on Jan 22. There are actually two circles, depending upon whether the release were to occur in the plating shop or in the chemical storage area. Within the circle are over 125 homes, several apartment buildings — and for the zone surrounding the chemical storage area — a hotel and businesses along El Camino. We are talking about hundreds of residents — not to mention the workers at CPI and in adjacent buildings if the release occurred during working hours. Those closest to the accident center would be very severely affected and may not survive; those at the edges, depending upon the wind and weather, hopefully would not suffer permanent injury.

Planning Process Commission In 2006 the timing was right for making changes to the zoning codes. Planning Department was pulling together a new zoning ordinance, called Performance Standards, to cover permitted uses at the interface between zones. Normally this covers items such as lighting, noise, setbacks, parking. They agreed to add a new section dealing with hazardous materials. And the current Planning Commission members were more sensitive to risks from hazardous materials accidents than in past years, and they pressed the Planning staff to include language in the draft proposal that addressed our concerns.

While these meetings and hearings were in progress last fall, efforts got underway to inform and communicate the issues to the neighborhood. These were led by Jeff Dean who, with assistance from Bill Kelly, put together a web site with striking graphics, and that also created a place where reports and letters could be posted and easily accessed. By the time of the recent City Council meeting, we had acquired quite a bit of information that we shared with the Barron Park neighborhood and with City officials.

What is in the New Ordinance. The new ordinances, passed unanimously by the Council, make a strong statement; large amounts of extremely hazardous materials don' t belong near residences, and they may not belong at all in Palo Alto.

What the City Council passed on January 22 is now Chapter 18.23 of the Zoning Code, Performance Criteria for Multiple Family, Commercial and Industrial Districts. The Hazardous Materials component is Section 18.23 100. Several of the sections include notification to nearby residents when there is a change in the type of hazardous materials, but only after the building permits have been issued.

The meaningful restrictions are in Sections B (vi) to B (viii). The ordinance establishes a 300 foot buffer zone: "no new "H" [Hazardous] Occupancy portion of a facility (building or area) and no conversion or reconstruction of an existing facility designated for storage, use or handling of hazardous materials above Title 19 threshold limits shall be located closer than 300 feet to a residentially zoned property." This says that CPI will not be allowed to rebuild its plating facilities again in the same place unless they reduce all of their hazardous materials to below the Title 19 thresholds.

It goes on to prohibit CPI, or any other site using hazardous material in Palo Alto, from increasing the amounts of any hazardous material they have to above Title 19 threshold levels if the quantity was previously below those levels — unless they would be located further than 300 feet from a residentially zoned property, and even then they must first apply for a Conditional Use Permit from the City Council. Finally, it limits the amount of extremely hazardous materials CPI already has above Title 19 threshold levels (nitric acid and potassium cyanide) to no more than 10% above the amounts listed in the RMP in force on November 1, 2006. We pressed for an outright cap on the amount of Title 19 hazardous materials, but the Council, with advice from the City Attorney, allowed the 10% increase to provide flexibility for delivery and business variability.

The story on hazardous materials doesn' t end here. We need to keep watch on the business and technology trends in the Stanford Research Park. The rezoning of the Research Park in 2005 included provisions to allow buildings to have space to accommodate the special air handling equipment required by biotechnology companies. The biotechnology facilities that would be of concern are those that would experiment with the most dangerous, highly contagious biological agents, those that pose a risk of aerosol-transmitted infections and life-threatening disease. This issue was brought up by Fred Balin, a resident of College Terrace, who also worked in tandem with us throughout this process on the hazardous materials issues from CPI. At his initiative, the Planning Commission and then the City Council included in the Hazardous Materials zoning ordinance an absolute prohibition against having any facility with the most dangerous, BioSafety Level 4 etiological agents in Palo Alto.

In addition to the ordinance, the Council passed a motion by Councilman Barton that directed the City Staff to work with CPI to lower its hazardous materials to below Title 19 thresholds as soon as possible. This will be a challenge for CPI, but they are going to have to meet it if, in the long term, they intend to remain where they are in Palo Alto.

The motion doesn' t have any measurable components or timeline. All of us will be watching closely what develops. We want to give CPI and the City some time to come up with plans, but the direction is clear. In some reasonable time, say five years, no one in our neighborhood should have to worry about another toxic gas release.

1Don Kazak, Palo Alto Weekly, February 8, 2006
2San Jose Mercury, November 25, 1985
3 San Jose Mercury, March 11, 1987
4Palo Alto Weekly, April 1987
5Times Tribune, December 16, 1986
6Times Tribune, June 21, 1991
The list of toxic substances and their thresholds is listed in

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