Toxic explosion in East Palo Alto has uncertain effect on the Baylands

(Guest posting by CGF volunteer Annie Ryan.)

On June 5th of this year, a four-thousand gallon mixture of volatile and­­ semi-volatile organic compounds exploded inside a tanker truck at the East Palo Alto Romic toxic waste facilities, and subsequently escaped from the tanker into the air (the press release avoided the word “exploded” and said “reacted chemically” instead). A mist spread over the Bay Road complex, nearby homes, and the immediately adjacent Bayland marshes before coating the ground, leaving buildings, roads, and wetland plants covered in a residue of sticky black dots. Immediately following the spill, nearby residents were warned to stay inside their homes pending a further investigation into the cause and severity of the spill. Following the incident, the Environmental Protection Agency released a report outlining their initial findings regarding the nature of the spill, and what steps they were taking to ensure the safety of the nearby citizens and wildlife.

The report claims “the release of the VOCs had no effect on nearby neighborhoods or residents due to the fact that the chemicals dissipated so quickly into the air”, and that the sticky, black residue left on the road and plants “is not likely to be harmful unless one comes into direct contact with the material”. Any long term effect on the marshland was unknown at the time of the report, but biologists were expected to release results within the end of the week. (week of June 12th).

Nearly eight weeks later, the overall impact that the chemical spill had on surrounding East Palo Alto neighborhoods and marshlands is still largely a mystery. The EPA states that the tanker was carrying semi-volatile and volatile compounds, however according to Greg Baker of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration there is still no definitive list of every compound in the tanker at the time of the spill. According to Baker, the biologists’ primary focus has been determining where the released spray passed over and if any damages to plant or animal life occurred. Back in June biologists explored the marshes looking for any signs of impact such as dead fish or birds, and used an imaging fly-over technique to get aerial views of the affected marshlands, and determine to what degree the area had been affected. Biologists could find no signs of environmental distress or a lack of photosynthetic activity. In August a second round of fly-over imaging will be used to see if any previously undetected impacts arise.

This incident is not the first time Romic has threatened the health and safety of residents and the marshland. In 1995 Romic mistakenly released cyanide into the Palo Alto Wastewater Treatment Plant, and in 2005 Romic paid the state of California $849,500 to settle 53 safety violations, accumulated over the last 7 years.

Romic’s presence has caught the attention of the East Palo Alto activist group Youth United for Community Action or YUCA. Over the last few years YUCA has worked to raise awareness of the harmful effect Romic has on the community. Roger Madrid, a co-member of the group believes that Romic has no place in his community, “they handle chemicals that are known to cause cancer and asthma” and “we want them to leave”.

It is troubling that while the EPA has released a statement assuring the community that the people, plants, and animals within the vicinity of the Romic spill were not harmed, it is still unknown what was in the tanker that spilled. Furthermore, EPA has not addressed the possibility of long term effects that the released chemicals could have on the community and wildlife. The Romic toxic facility has a controversial history, located in an economically disadvantaged, ethnic minority community while receiving, storing, and processing toxic waste generated elsewhere. The facility’s presence immediately next to the Baylands raises both environmental concerns and community economic development concerns for why the facility should occupy a prominent Bayfront property. These concerns are longstanding, and Committee for Green Foothills will continue to monitor the natural resource protection issues that result in this area.

-Annie Ryan

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