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E.P.A. fuming after toxic spill

Chemicals inside tanker truck may still pose danger to area

Jun 7, 2006 | nside Bay Area The large black cloud spewed Monday night by a chemical reaction gone bad inside a tanker truck at Romic Environmental Technologies has long since dissipated. But as of Tuesday evening, the unstable chemical brew still posed a threat, according to Harold Schapelhouman, deputy chief of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District.

"The volatility of the substance is really a problem," said Schapelhouman. "Romic needs to empty the truck, but the truck isn't stable."

A Romic spokesman, Chris Stampolis, assessed the situation differently on Tuesday evening: "In terms of pressure in the unit, it's zero. And the tank is cool to the touch," he said.

On Monday around 10:45 p.m., East Palo Alto police issued a shelter-in-place warning for residents living within one-half mile of the solvent-recycling plant at 2081 Bay Road. Police drove down streets warning residents through loudspeakers to stay indoors, close windows and turn off air conditioners. About one hour later, they reversed the emergency order.

No one spoke definitively about the health risks to the community from the plume, although Chavez said the shelter-in-place order was lifted after "imminent danger" had passed.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency and the fire district, along with the state Department of Toxic Substances Control, Department of Fish and Game, San Mateo County Health Department, county Office of Emergency Services and East Palo Alto Police Department are all involved in the investigation of the incident.

The tanker truck was preparing to depart Romic at about 9 p.m. Monday, carrying a 4,000-gallon liquid mix of 15 solvents, Schapelhouman said. Its destination was another recycling plant. But for reasons not yet understood, a chemical reaction began in the tank, building pressure. The contents included toluene, hydroxylamine, monoethanolamine and acetonitrile.

The pressure valve then erupted, said Chavez, which she emphasized showed a safety system was working. If the valve hadn't released, the entire tank could have exploded. "It did its job," Chavez said. Schapelhouman said a large black cloud spewed from the tanker shortly after 9 p.m. The EPA stated that a mist settled over a two-acre area surrounding the plant, including a PG&E substation across the street and a nearby wetland.

Cleanup crews are power-washing contaminated areas with a system that recaptures the tainted cleanup water, Schapelhouman said. Chavez said contaminated vegetation will also be removed.

Chavez said Romic is working to reopen Bay Road by today, which was closed off at Tara Road on Tuesday.

Rubin Abrica, the mayor of East Palo Alto, said the city would "conduct a full and thorough investigation." He also expressed exasperation at the city's burden of coping with toxic releases from Romic.

"There's a history of incidents happening at that site," he said.

Schapelhouman agreed, saying, "We've had significant problems with Romic, and underline and bold that statement. That included drums blowing up."

But the deputy fire chief emphasized that was well over a decade ago, and Romic has since made significant strides in improving its operation.

"You've got to give them credit," he said, adding that the company provides a valuable service by recycling toxic substances.

From Abrica's perspective, it's time for another city to host a hazardous-materials plant.

"That's the bottom line," he said. "We've done our share all these years carrying the burden."

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