Copyrighted material


by Raj Jayadev

Silicon Valley Toxics Heaviest In Poor, Latino Areas (1998)

(PNS) -- Froilan Chan-Liongco didn't hear the explosion that incinerated his clothes and left him with second and third degree burns on the lower part of his body. As a welder at Romic Environmental Technologies' hazardous waste recycling facility in East Palo Alto for 16 years, he'd seen his fair share of chemical fires at work, but this one caught him by surprise.

After months of recovery, Chan-Liongco feels burned in more ways than one. Suddenly, the 64-year-old Filipino immigrant -- who resigned because of the company's handling of the incident -- finds himself working with protesters he was once told to ignore by company managers.

For the past 15 years, Romic has been embroiled in a fists-up fight with residents of East Palo Alto, who claim the company has been polluting their community with toxic waste and avoiding closure of its plant by holding regulatory agencies at bay.

One of those agencies, the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), slapped Romic with 28 violations from 1999 to 2004 -- everything from mislabeling chemicals to storing them in unauthorized places -- resulting in a 2005 settlement of $849,500 in penalties. Another, the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration (CalOSHA), discovered 57 violations at the plant from 1988 to 2004, totaling $163,360 in fines.

Incredibly, Romic's DTSC permit expired in 1991; despite some extensions, it has been operating with a provisional permit for the last 11 years. Community members who oppose the plant believe that in Chan-Liongco, they've found the smoking gun whose testimony could shut it down for good.

After years of mounting pressure from local community groups, the DTSC is finally investigating whether or not to approve Romic's operating permit. Chan-Loingco's accident is one of the factors the agency will consider in its deliberations.

Underneath the controversy over Romic is a larger story about one of Silicon Valley's least-talked-about exports: toxic waste. Romic specializes in industrial recycling of liquid waste -- solvents, inks, acids and other dangerous chemicals that are involved in the production of computer parts. The importation of this waste into their community has East Palo Alto residents worried, and many believe it is no coincidence that Romic's plant is allowed to continue operating, despite multiple safety violations, in an area whose residents are 97 percent people of color.

"There is a blind eye cast upon how businesses operate in communities like ours," says Annie Loya, an organizer for Youth United for Community Action, an environmental justice organization based in East Palo Alto.

At a time when some teenagers are busy Myspacing themselves into cybercomas, the East Palo Alto youth at YUCA spend their evenings sifting through almost unintelligible state regulatory reports. They are battle-tested organizers topped off with teenage swagger -- an underestimated, yet effective, combination. They have been at it for over 12 years, and have waged an effective campaign, drawing other community organizations, legislators (most recently U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo) and environmental advocates into their fight.

Loya, 22, has worked with the group since she was 13. She says the chemicals Romic works with are polluting the city and increasing the risk of cancer and asthma. When her group conducted their own health survey of over 700 East Palo Alto residents, they found that one out of every four 13-to-21-year-old had asthma, and found cancer rates for all ages to be well above the rest of San Mateo County.

Sixty-four-year-old Chan-Liongco has trouble sitting for long periods of time since his injury. He shifts in his seat in his Union City apartment as he tells the story of Tank 104.

Romic has over 100 tanks containing mostly flammable or combustible liquid, according to Chan-Liongco's OSHA report. Tank 104, which had previously contained solvent-contaminated wastewater, ignited as he was cutting a hole on the top. He had conducted all the required safety precautions, he says, but there was one reading that had raised his suspicion before the accident.

"I went to our safety manager to see what I should do. He said to just go ahead, that it was safe," Chan-Liongco says. According to the OSHA report, Chan-Liongco then climbed back up on top of the 26-foot-high, 12,000 gallon steel tanker to begin his work.

As soon as Chan-Liongco brought his lit torch to the tank, the explosion rocked him back. He was trapped, strapped by his harness to the tank itself.

"I felt my body burning, and saw my work clothes burned off," says Chan-Liongco. Another Romic employee rushed to shut off the oxygen and acetylene valves. Chan-Liongco says he heard a number of workers yelling to call 911. But an unexpected accident turned even more bizarre, Chan-Liongco says, when his manager decided not to call 911.

Chan-Liongco says he went to the locker room, where another worker gave him some underwear and he put on his street clothes. According to Chan-Liongco, his manager instructed him to wait in the lobby, where he sat for close to two hours.

"I remember how long the time was because I couldn't really even sit because of the pain, and wanted to go to the hospital already," says Chan-Liongco.

In a phone interview, Mary Kilgo, the plant's director of operations, denied that Chan-Loingco waited in the Romic lobby at all, saying that "he must have meant the hospital lobby," and that he was taken to the hospital immediately.

When asked why he thinks Romic did not call 911, or at least request an ambulance, Chan-Liongco pauses, leans forward and says, "I think they were trying to cover their ... you know."

A plant safety manager eventually drove Chan-Liongco to Stanford Medical Center, which does not have a burn unit. Unable to receive treatment there, Chan-Liongco was put on morphine and an ambulance took him to Santa Clara Valley Medical Center.

According to OSHA compliance officer Vajie Motiafard, Romic should have known which hospital to go to, because they'd made the same mistake two years earlier, when another employee was burned on his legs and left arm while cleaning a tanker.

In all, from the time of the incident, it took over six hours for Chan-Liongco to receive the needed medical attention.

As soon as Chan-Loingco got home from his 11-day hospital stay, he started looking for legal assistance. He eventually found Alex Bravo of Sacramento and Bert Vega of Vallejo, both Tagalog-speaking attorneys. Together, they are filing a willful-misconduct claim against Romic. Chan-Liongco returned to the East Palo Alto plant one last time in August, to submit his resignation letter.

In November 2006, Chan-Liongco got a call from YUCA organizers. "I remember seeing the protesters outside, but we were always told to not pay attention to them and drive right by them," says Chan-Liongco. Now, those same protestors are his staunchest allies.

YUCA -- which is also working in partnership with Indian elders in Arizona to combat another Romic facility -- had been stepping up its fight against the East Palo Alto plant even before talking to Chan-Loingco. In the late-night hours of June 6, a Romic tanker had a chemical leak that produced a vapor made up of 15 different chemicals. Police told residents to stay indoors within a half-mile perimeter surrounding the plant. Romic claims the release did not affect residents, but community members, many of whom said they saw a large plume spanning over 200 yards coming from the facility, complained of headaches and skin, ear, and throat irritations after the release.

The June leak, coupled with the Chan-Liongco incident, does not bode well for Romic. The East Palo Alto City Council, once a defender of the plant because of the tax revenue it brought in, recently voted unanimously to oppose Romic's permit to operate. Another East Palo Alto councilmember, Ruben Abrica, has tried to meet with Romic's client companies to raise money to relocate the waste company.

"When the day comes, we can all pitch in, get trucks and help them move out," Abrica says.

Angela Blanchette, spokeswoman for the DTSC, has been very busy lately as community groups like YUCA begin to target the regulatory agency's lack of action. Once of YUCA's most recent tactics was to send the DTSC office a "Deny the Permit" teddy bear handmade by a YUCA member's mother. The DTSC told YUCA organizers that it will release a new timeline for the permit decision at the end of January. For now, Blanchette said, the permit decision "is temporarily on hold in order to conduct the investigations required that may have an impact on the decision."

Chan-Loingco is still recuperating from his injuries, and will have his hands full with the lawyers, courts and regulatory agencies over the next year. While his newfound activism seems to have given him some peace, one cannot help but wonder, as he lifts his shirt to show his wounds: What if the DTSC had conducted its investigations earlier, sometime over the 15 years since the last permit expired? Would Chan-Loingco have these burns? Would the residents of East Palo Alto have been exposed to a chemical plume in their neighborhood in June? And will voices of those like Chan-Loingco and his YUCA allies finally be heard, or will the lowest-income parts of Silicon Valley continue to be the dumping ground for high tech's dirtiest secrets?

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Albion Monitor   January 9, 2007   (

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