Council Meeting 2007 January 22, Item 8; Zoning Ordinance Update: Chapter 18.23.100 (Hazardous Materials)

The Board of Directors of the Barron Park Association (BPA) commends the Planning and Transportation Commission (P&TC) and the City Staff for making substantial improvements in the Hazardous Materials section of the Zoning Ordinance. However, we believe that both P&TC and Staff stopped short of what was needed, and we urge you to refer these issues back to the P&TC with guidance on additional changes.

Title 19 (high-risk) Chemicals

Of particular concern are high-risk chemicals governed by the State of California regulations under Title 19. The CPI site stores and uses such chemicals within a few feet of the border with a residential area (Chimalus Drive). This undesirable situation exists because the presence of these chemicals pre-dates current practices. CPI is the sole site that would be affected by the part of the proposed changes related to sites with the type and quantity of chemicals regulated by Title 19. There is one other site in Palo Alto regulated by Title 19 - the City's Water Treatment Facility - but it has adequate separation from residential areas.

The BPA Board opposes allowing an automatic increase of 25% in these high-risk chemicals at the CPI site (Proposed ordinance, 18.23.100:B:vi:b - next to last line). The stated rationale for this allowance is to allow CPI to make minor adjustment to its processes. We disagree with this for three reasons.

  1. The quantities in question are not just the amounts in use, but include the amounts in storage. Minor increases in usage may be able to be accommodated by changes in how the on-site storage is managed. Any significant increase in storage capacity would likely represent an additional significant restructuring of CPI's operation, something that should be reviewed by the City. Accommodating increased usage represents a complex tradeoff between increased storage and increased frequency of deliveries, both having their risks. This should be addressed only when there is a specific proposal.
  2. CPI has recently greatly increased the amounts of these chemicals at this site as it consolidated operations from surrounding cities into the Palo Alto site. They had to be aware that their site configuration failed to meet current practices for such high-risk materials (having buffer zones). This recent increase should be counted as the allowance given to an established usage.
  3. We would hope that CPI would not need even to consider increasing the quantities of these high-risk chemicals at this site. Because of the costs of handling and safeguarding such chemicals, companies are being driven to develop and use improved processes that use less of these chemicals.

The combination of high-risk chemicals and their closeness to residential areas presents significant difficulties in providing meaningful (timely) alerts in the event of another release. Note that the 1000-foot radius from the storage tanks ("the Danger Zone") includes not just single-family residences, but apartments, one major hotel (The Creekside Inn) and additional hotels (on the far side of El Camino).

Alerting has been a long-standing problem for Palo Alto. In April 1987 - almost 20 years ago - the BPA worked with the City to conduct an evacuation exercise. That exercise identified a number of problems, some of which have been addressed, but many are still unresolved. Experience with the existing alerting system over the years - in response to both crimes and mountain-lion sightings - emphasizes the weakness and limitations of the City's alerting system. The much-delayed replacement to the Teleminder system is anticipated to reduce the technical problems. However, the business-process (operational) problems remain.

In any case, basic safety engineering warns against putting any faith in a system that is infrequently exercised (such as the anticipated alerting system). Structural protections are much preferred. In the case of these high-risk chemicals, a reasonable buffer zone would provide two benefits: time and space. Time for residents to be alerted of the problem, and space for the chemicals to be diluted to lower concentrations before reaching residential areas. Allowing for increased quantities of high-risk chemicals in locations where an accident would provide inadequate time to notify nearby residents is inviting a disaster.

The BPA Board believes that the Zoning Ordinance should include a phase-out of the current configuration (inadequate buffer zone for high-risk chemicals), involving a combination of increasing the buffer zone and decreasing the quantities on-site. Amortization of non-conforming uses is a routine component of zoning, and we see no justification for a use representing a major safety problem not to have a similar amortization.

Notification - for hazardous materials not covered by Title 19.

Notification distance is 150 feet. We did not hear a convincing explanation for why such a small distance was warranted. We would encourage you to query staff for a justification.

Notification timing is within 10 days after the permit has been granted. Again, we did not hear a convincing explanation for why advanced notification was not appropriate. Palo Alto's residents have a wealth of knowledge that can supplement the professional expertise of staff, especially with the broad and ever-changing range of hazardous materials and processes.

Douglas Moran, President, Barron Park Association