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.
play next to Matheson Gas in Newark, Calif, where three accidents
have occured on three years.
Photo, Paul Myers, El Andar.
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 doesnt 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.
Thats 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 were 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 countrys current state of security alert,
a fine line must be walked.
We want the public to have access to this information, but we dont
want to create a public health problem by giving information to people,
Is it really in the publics interest to keep a chemical companys
potential hazards secret? As it stands, accessing a chemical companys
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 companys RMP, an appointment must be made at the nearest EPA
reading room. That can take a week or a month, depending on the EPAs
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 Companys 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, Mathesons compliance manager, has only
been with the company for two years, so he couldnt comment on that
event, but he said that the company is doing what they can to make sure
that accidents dont 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 didnt know the chemical company was her neighbor.
I dont think anyone knows, she said. I think its
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
Breedloves 13-year-old daughters 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
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, Mathesons sensors are connected to the local fire
departments 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 couldnt elaborate on the specifics of the pending action,
she did say that the security around the facility was being addressed.
I wouldnt 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.
Mathesons Chamberlain admits that good protection is hard to find.
Were looking for good security, he said.
Im 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 wouldnt
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 communitys
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
There are opportunities for the public to be informed in this community
... theres a lot of coordination and a lot of communication,
she said, adding that members of the citys 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 doesnt 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. Its
a public document.
According to Guier, updating the EPAs 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
isnt always eager. Sumitomo Sitix Silicons 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
But there comes a time when its no longer considered intrusive to
ask, What is my neighbors business?
© 2001 El Andar Magazine