Fall/ Winter 2001

• Hillary Cargo

Minding the Neighbor's Business
High-tech companies pose risk of deadly accidents — but nearby residents don't know this


Four minutes.

That's all it would take for 27,100 residents, school children, day care centers, recreation areas, and businesses to be affected by an accident at one Silicon Valley chip manufacturing plant.

Children play next to Matheson Gas in Newark, Calif, where three accidents have occured on three years. Photo, Paul Myers, El Andar.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has made it a requirement for companies that store large amounts of chemicals at their facilities to document a “worst-case scenario” as part of their risk management plans (RMPs). The scenario provides information about the population density of the area, the chemical involved in the accident, and the surrounding landscape that would be affected by a chemical explosion, leak or equipment failure. The EPA doesn’t require these companies to communicate with the surrounding neighbors to tell them of these risks. And so, as the vision of Silicon Valley utopia orchestrates a typical day in paradise — with nice homes, safe neighborhoods, wealthy families; and as children from a panoply of ethnic backgrounds mingle in the street — a potential hazard sits in their backyard.

One and nine tenths of a mile.

That’s the distance to endpoint, or the area surrounding the accident site, that a hydrogen chloride gas plume would cover if a spill at Sumitomo Sitix Silicon, Inc. took place, according the their worst-case scenario. If such a spill were to occur, human contact with the gas could cause burns, severe injury, and if vapors were inhaled, could be fatal.

Since many gases are heavier than air, low areas such as basements could be affected as well as the water supply. Though Sumitomo has a clean safety record, the fact remains that hazardous materials pose potential disasters in the surrounding community.

“You have to figure that (the residents) know we’re here and they make that decision to live here,” said Nancy Norman, spokeswoman for Sumitomo,which manufactures silicon wafers in Fremont, California, the heart of Silicon Valley.

“Consequences come they may, but people should know what they are getting into when they move into the area.
This was an industrial area before the residential area surrounded us,” she said. “Our job is to take care of the things within our walls and we do a good job at that.” Sumitomo does have a good safety record since it began handling large quantities of hazardous materials, but a high-density housing complex sits at its heels — separated only by a set of railroad tracks and a couple of concrete walls.

Hetal Jariwala is one of the neighbors across the tracks from Sumitomo. As he takes a leisurely walk with his six-day-old baby, Jariwala is alarmed to hear that he lives five hundred feet from the potential hazard.

“I will stay here as long as I know what to do in case of an accident,” he said. “As long as we know what to do, to close the windows or to leave, I feel okay about it.”

But gathering information about emergency response begins with identifying which risks exist in the community. If residents really want to gather information about the proximity of a local chemical company, an arduous task is at hand since access to this information is well-guarded.
In 1999, when the EPA was about to post these RMPs (including the worst-case scenarios) on the Internet, chemical companies lobbied to have the information withheld from public access.

Holly Guier, hazardous materials specialist for the city of Newark (California) Fire Department, said she feels that the public has a right to know which types of hazardous facilities are in their communities — but she also feels that with the country’s current state of security alert, a fine line must be walked.

“We want the public to have access to this information, but we don’t want to create a public health problem by giving information to people,” she said.

Is it really in the public’s interest to keep a chemical company’s potential hazards secret? As it stands, accessing a chemical company’s information can be a daunting chore. You must first identify which hazardous chemical companies rest within your county. Then, if you want to view the company’s RMP, an appointment must be made at the nearest EPA reading room. That can take a week or a month, depending on the EPA’s response time. At the reading room, you can expect to show identification that proves you live or work in the affected area. (See resources and maps for more information.)

Three accidents in three years.

That is Matheson Gas Company’s accident history from 1996-1998. Matheson delivers specialty gases to semiconductor manufacturers from its facility in Newark, just north of a wildlife refuge in the San Francisco Bay. The last accident, in 1998, involved a gas release and a fire. One person was hurt. In 1997, four people needed medical treatment and one person was hospitalized after a release of Silane gas resulted in a four-alarm fire. James Chamberlain, Matheson’s compliance manager, has only been with the company for two years, so he couldn’t comment on that event, but he said that the company is doing what they can to make sure that accidents don’t happen.

“Our main way of communicating with the community is through the fire department,” he said. “We have open meetings with the public,” that are advertised in a local paper and used as a platform for the community to voice their concerns about the facility.

Chris Breedlove has lived on the same block as Matheson Gas for 22 years and didn’t know the chemical company was her neighbor.

“I don’t think anyone knows,” she said. “I think it’s better to know than not to know. I would want information if it was available.”

A hunter-orange wind sock at Matheson Gas flies in the distance above Breedlove’s 13-year-old daughter’s head. The day is pleasant, the air clear, the wind mild, and kids shuffle around the block on bicycles and skateboards. These are the people who would be caught under the shadow of a gas cloud if an accident were to occur. And not many know about their neighbor’s business.

But Holly Guier knows, since she was part of a city team that recently investigated Matheson due to excessive responses by the fire department. As a precaution, Matheson’s sensors are connected to the local fire department’s alarms, and the sensors are set at very low levels.

“We work with them on a regular basis,” Guier said, noting that “they have pending enforcement action against them.”
Though Guier couldn’t elaborate on the specifics of the pending action, she did say that the security around the facility was being addressed.

“I wouldn’t say that Matheson has failed to secure the facility, but that is being looked at,” she said. “No one in this country has looked at the security of their facility in relation to terrorist activities until recently.”

Matheson’s Chamberlain admits that good protection is hard to find. “We’re looking for good security,” he said.

“I’m real nervous about what is going on right now,” said Mike Amodeo, a Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) trainer and plant manager for Hill Brothers Chemical Company, a San José company that filed a worst-case scenario with the EPA. “I come in on weekends to check in.”

Amodeo might have reason to be concerned, considering that no 24-hour surveillance takes place at Hill Brothers. Nor are there any surveillance cameras at Matheson Gas. In fact, all that separates the company from the community is a standard link fence, reinforced with barbed wire. El Andar reporters were able to drive a car inside the fence within yards of hazardous gas tanks with no response from security.

In contrast, Sumitomo appears to shine in the area of security, with cameras and reinforced posts surrounding the tank of chemicals stirring strange fumes from the confines of their fence cages.

Let there be no sense of false security, though.

Despite the surveillance of the facility, danger still rests inside, like a dragon one can only hope will never awake. If it did, and a disaster were to occur, surveillance cameras and barbed wire fences wouldn’t mean much. Both Sumitomo and Matheson have similar population densities surrounding their sites, so regardless of who appears safety-conscious on the exterior, an accident within either facility would result in a similar number of people being affected. 27,000 to 28,000 people could have their lives changed in an instant if the dragon stirred. No one wants to talk about what could really happen if the beast got loose, if an explosion created the worst-case scenario in the community. No one wants to talk about it because of the threat of terrorism. But what about the community’s right to know? Though terrorism is a possible threat, so are natural disasters such as earthquakes, a real concern at Sumitomo since it rests near a major fault line.

Knowing how ro alert the public when a disaster occurs is critical. Guier thinks that her area in Newark is well-prepared since drills are conducted regularly.

“There are opportunities for the public to be informed in this community ... there’s a lot of coordination and a lot of communication,” she said, adding that members of the city’s staff can communicate in Spanish and in Cantonese.
Guier said the Newark Fire Department just finished a drill which simulated two planes colliding over Matheson Gas.

“It went really well,” said Guier, who helped write the scenario. During the drill, Guier said the emergency response team simulated downed phone lines. Phone lines would normally be the first mechanism of contact with other emergency responders and the community.

“Radio communications would be a back-up plan. We have a group that is involved as a ham radio network, and squad cars could also drive through neighborhoods with bullhorns,” she said.

Amodeo agreed that it is important to let the surrounding community know what to do in case of a chemical emergency. “We would call all of the neighbors in the area and let them know to tape up the windows and put wet towels at their doors,” Amodeo said.

Drills such as the one conducted in Newark provide a way for the community emergency response teams to coordinate what they would do in case of an emergency at one of these facilities. But the community doesn’t have too much involvement in these drills.

If residents wanted to get the information about the community emergency response plan, it should be made easy, according to Ron Baker, information officer for the State Department of Toxic Substances Control. “(The companies) are to have a copy of their emergency response plan available at all times at their facilities,” he said. “Ask them where their emergency response plan is and ask to see it. If they say no, you can go to the fire department and get it there,” Baker said. “It’s a public document.”

According to Guier, updating the EPA’s risk management plan involves a public review process. Every time a new permit is issued to a company, there is an opportunity for public involvement, she said. The company is required to advertise these meetings in a newspaper. But the response isn’t always eager. Sumitomo Sitix Silicon’s last public meeting was vacant, according to Norman.

“There are opportunities for the public to be informed in this community,” Guiero said. “We have a lot of coordination and communication.”

Being informed can begin with asking questions.

“When most people buy a house, very few of us say ‘that building down the street looks nice, I wonder what goes on there’,” Baker said. As urban sprawl and the demand for housing has increased in Silicon Valley, lines between the industrial zones and residential have become blurred. Instead of smokestacks as beacons of their presence, the new industry of clean technology can blend into the residential landscape relatively unnoticed.

But there comes a time when it’s no longer considered intrusive to ask, “What is my neighbor’s business?”

© 2001 El Andar Magazine


Silicon Shame Series

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Week 2
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Week 3
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