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Rogue removed from Redwood City Port

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
November 29, 2007

A shipping facility at the Port of Redwood City once operated by a scofflaw hazardous-waste handler is being taken over by another firm with a clean track record in Northern California.

Clean Harbors, a Massachusetts-based waste handler, is taking charge at the port and at an East Palo Alto facility, both of which were operated by Romic Environmental Solutions. Romic shut down last summer after the California Department of Toxic Substances Control found it had violated numerous waste-storage laws and caused serious injury to an employee at its East Palo Alto facility.

The Redwood City facility is one of two hazardous-waste rail-transfer sites in California. Clean Harbors is seeking unrestricted permits from the DTSC to continue transferring fuels at the site.

Until this year, Romic was using the 1-acre port facility to take in fuel waste from its 14-acre East Palo Alto storage facility and ship it by railway to industrial companies in the Bay Area that use it to fuel cement production, said Patti Barni, acting chief of enforcement for DTSC’s Northern California operations. Clean Harbors hopes to ship fuel from its San Jose plant to those same customers, spokesman Bill Geary said.

“Our track record is good, which is not to say there haven’t been violations along the way,” Geary said. “We are the largest company in North America handling hazardous waste … and we acquire, upgrade substantially and in some cases may close facilities.”

Clean Harbors has operated sites in California for roughly five years. The firm has violated DTSC rules related to shipping documents at a site in Los Angeles in 2004, but does not have any violations in Northern California, Barni said.

In addition to problems at its East Palo Alto waste-storage site, Romic also violated DTSC rules at its Redwood City facility, including accepting waste shipments in unauthorized trucks, sending waste without proper documentation, and not repairing or reporting a storage tank that had cracks and gaps in its outer layer, Barni said.

Because of Romic’s violations, the DTSC placed restrictions on Romic in May, saying that waste containers larger than 85 gallons can’t be stored on the East Palo Alto site, and that no more than 60,550 gallons of waste fuel can be kept at the port.

For now, Clean Harbors must operate under those restrictions. The DTSC is taking public comment on the company’s permit application through Tuesday, DTSC spokeswoman Carol Northrup said.

“This site is next to the Bay, so it’s even more critical that they keep [their permits and inspections] up to date,” Northrup said.

Clean Harbors by the numbers

» Founded: 1980

» Headquarters: Norwell, Mass.

» Waste-management facilities: 49

» Customers: 45,000

» Fortune 500 customers: 325

» Number of states where it operates: 36, plus Canada, Mexico and Puerto Rico

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

November 29, 2007 at 10:30 PM

Water underneath the Bay may save the day

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
November 26, 2007

A pocket of groundwater underneath San Francisco Bay could provide water to irrigate local parks and landscapes — a possibility crews are exploring by digging test wells.

In recent years, Redwood City has exceeded its water allotment from the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, prompting city leaders to explore ways to conserve water and maximize the use of potable water. The city had been using approximately 326 million more gallons per year that it is allotted.

A city task force then recommended a recycled-water pipeline, which is currently pumping water to Redwood Shores and will eventually bring the water to other parts of the city.

The task force also suggested exploring under the city for aquifers, subterranean layers of rock and sand that contain water.

“There really isn’t an aquifer right under Redwood City, but there is one under the Bay that the Seaport area touches,” said Community Development Director Peter Ingram, who also oversees the city’s water program.

The first drilling took place roughly more than a month ago, but the water turned out to be too salty for watering plants, Ingram said. However, they’ll continue to drill deeper in search of fresh water that could be used to water Red Morton Park and similar sites.

Redwood City has used less than its Hetch Hetchy allotment this year for the first time in roughly a decade, but as the city expands, more drinking water will be needed.

The U.S. Geological Survey recently released a study that water levels in the nation’s aquifers are declining due to overuse.

“We’re using groundwater more and more in this country,” USGS hydrologist William Cunningham said. “Our population is increasing. Groundwater in general is a renewable resource.”

But supply varies, Cunningham said, and it depends on the amount of rainwater a region gets and how heavily aquifers are being tapped.

As yet, nobody has done a comprehensive study of how much groundwater might be available in the Bay Area, said Jim Nickles, a USGS spokesman.

While some residents in San Francisco and on the Peninsula have private wells for watering and even drinking water, it’s impossible to know how many, said Tony Winnicker, San Francisco Public Utilities Commission spokesman. San Francisco uses some underground wells to water areas of Golden Gate Park.

“We know that in a lot of the backyards in the creek basins, there are wells for irrigation, but we have no inventory or regulatory control over them,” Ingram said.

San Bruno has utilized wells since 1940s

While Redwood City explores groundwater for irrigation, other Peninsula cities have been tapping into their aquifers for generations.

San Bruno began digging wells in the 1940s, and now gets roughly 50 percent of its water — roughly 2.1 million gallons per day — from underground supplies, Deputy Public Works Director Robert Howard said. That water flows to residents and businesses, for drinking and irrigation.

The other 50 percent of the city’s water supply comes from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission’s reservoir at Hetch Hetchy in the Sierras. For 50 years, the groundwater supply has remained steady.

“We’ve seen [the aquifer] as a smart way to approach the use of water because it’s a flexible system,” San Bruno City Attorney Pamela Thompson said. “The aquifer has declined somewhat from what it was originally, but it’s recharging to approximately the same degree that it’s being used.”

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

November 26, 2007 at 10:23 PM

Local company rolls out new electric wheels

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
October 12, 2007

Tucked away in a warehouse on Industrial Road is the Peninsula’s newest electric-car showroom, where customers can test-drive and buy scooters, sedans and trucks made by Zap.

Local and regional leaders turned out Thursday to check out the pint-size, electric-powered vehicles, which retail for $10,000 to $12,000 and reach speeds of 45 miles per hour. In the next two to three years, Zap hopes to roll out faster, freeway-legal cars, including a family car, an SUV and a sports car co-designed by Lotus, called the Alias.

Zap isn’t the first electric-car company to land in San Carlos. Tesla Motors, whose high-end all-electric sports car is expected to enter production next year, opened its headquarters here in 2006.

“These companies know San Carlos is a good location, and friendly to green business and technology,” Assemblymember Ira Ruskin, D-Redwood City, said.

In recent months, San Carlos has helped its residents score discounts on solar panels for their homes and has seen the creation of San Carlos Green, a community task force devoted to environmentally friendly practices. Allied Waste, whose facility is in San Carlos, retrofitted its fleet of 225 garbage trucks to run on biodiesel rather than petroleum-based fuel.

“Everyone is looking for ways to green their business,” said Sheryl Pomerenk, president of the San Carlos Chamber of Commerce.

In addition, many are looking for ways to green their cities. Belmont leaders announced this week that they will seek an incentive program for residents who buy low-emission vehicles. Ruskin sponsored a bill this year that would offer rebates to car buyers who choose cleaner models and force those who buy high-emissions vehicles a surcharge — and hopes to return with the bill in 2008.

While all the good green-vehicle tech is good for the environment, it may also be good for San Carlos’ eastern side, which is slowly transforming from an industrial-only zone into one that offers everything from winemaking at Domenico Cellars to medical care when Palo Alto Medical Foundation builds its hospital later this decade. Some in the city would like to see Industrial Road become a “green” destination.

“The opening of this showroom highlights opportunities in San Carlos,” said Mayor Tom Davids. “We’ve expressed interest in bringing green business here, and as word gets out, I hope we will become a real focus point.”

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

October 12, 2007 at 10:44 PM

Posted in environment, San Carlos

Faultline samples could hold clues

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
October 4, 2007

Core samples from inside the San Andreas fault may provide scientists with their first clues regarding how earthquakes begin, why they happen when they do and why some are so much stronger than others.

Those samples, drilled just weeks ago from a test site near Paso Robles, were unveiled by Stanford University and U.S. Geological Survey scientists Thursday. The group also announced plans to establish an observatory two miles underground, deep within California’s biggest fault, to measure and study earthquakes as they happen.

“For the first time, scientists can hold a piece of the San Andreas fault in their hands,” said Mark Zoback, a geophysicist with Stanford University.

Until now, researchers had to make do with what they could observe from the earth’s surface. The samples, along with the observatory, may answer many longstanding questions about the fault responsible for the 1906 earthquake and 1989’s Loma Prieta quake.

Geologists installed a steel channel in the fault to drill out core samples.

The samples include rock found all over California — along with serpentine, which comes from the earth’s crust on the ocean floor, Zoback said. That may provide a key clue regarding how active the San Andreas fault is, because serpentine, a relatively weak mineral, produces talc, an even weaker mineral. Talc’s friction-reducing properties may be lubricating the fault line.

“It could be that the San Andreas fault is located where it is because of where the serpentine is,” Zoback said. “And then the serpentine gets caught up and smeared along the length of the fault.”

Geologists chose the test site, in the small town of Parkside, because it has repeating “mini-earthquakes” that are not felt on the earth’s surface but provide a steady stream of data about the fault line’s movement over time, said William Ellsworth, a geologist with the USGS.

The observatory will consist of a 7-inch channel lined with scientific instruments that will study the fault over a 15-year period. Those instruments will detect clues regarding what happens before, during and after each quake and send data to computers on the earth’s surface for analysis.

“We don’t understand the physics that control the start of an earthquake, or why they stop,” Ellsworth said. “We’ve already recorded thousands of earthquakes and we’re beginning to see new physics not observed on the surface.”

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

October 4, 2007 at 10:43 PM

Peninsula garbage fleet goes green on grease

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
September 20, 2007

Local garbage trucks are now doing more than hauling trash — they’re fueled by it.

Allied Waste has become one of the biggest users of biodiesel in Northern California by converting its Peninsula fleet of 225 vehicles to run on fuel made from restaurant grease.

The reduction in carbon emissions is the equivalent of taking 315 cars off of local roads each year, said Evan Boyd, general manager for the waste company.

The move, announced Thursday, earned the region a commendation from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“Because of you, 3.3 million pounds of carbon emissions will be terminated each year,” Schwarzenegger said in a message relayed by representative Barbara Kaufman. “I hope others will be inspired to follow your trail.”

To ensure an inexpensive, reliable fuel source, Allied is partnering with Watsonville-based Alternate Solutions, which reclaims waste oil from restaurants and turns it into fuel, Boyd said. Allied’s fleet uses 80,000 gallons of diesel fuel each year, picking up trash from 93,000 residences and 10,000 businesses in San Mateo County.

Meanwhile, the costs should be the same. While petroleum-based diesel costs roughly $2.30 a gallon, biodiesel costs $2.27 a gallon, Boyd said.

Many saw the move as an example of San Mateo County’s dedication to environmental action.

“This is another example of the Peninsula taking a leadership role in environmental advances,” said Assemblyman Ira Ruskin, D-Redwood City, who authored a controversial bill that would reward car buyers who choose hybrids. “It’s one thing to talk about reducing carbon emissions and another thing to actually do it.”

Ruskin also commended Allied for launching a curbside recycling program this month for household batteries and cell phones.

Allied Waste suffered a significant image problem in early 2006 after several audits by the South Bayside Waste Management Authority revealed the trash company missed as many as 9,500 trash pickups in 2005. In addition, its customers had to wait up to 45 minutes on hold to report problems.

“Allied’s performance has been much better this year,” said Brian Moura, former chairman of the SBWMA and assistant city manager in San Carlos. “Their main office intervened — and now they’re at the level of service we’d expect.”

Now, Allied hopes to serve as a model for other companies considering jumping on the biodiesel bandwagon, according to Boyd.

“We are in a race against time, battling against global warming,” Ruskin said, gesturing to the biodiesel trucks behind him. “These vehicles don’t look like race cars, but they are.”

This story originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

September 20, 2007 at 10:19 PM

Traces of lead persist in Redwood City water

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
September 12, 2007

Local drinking water still contains trace levels of toxic lead, primarily from older pipes and fixtures in residential homes, according to a report released this week.

Although the level of lead in Redwood City drinking water does not exceed standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency, the level does not meet the California Public Health Department’s established goal of nearly eliminating the element entirely from the water supply, Redwood City Public Works Superintendent Justin Ezell said.

Lead, which is known to cause nervous-system damage in humans, was the only contaminant found in Redwood City drinking water.

The poisonous element was once used in pipeline alloys, including brass, particularly in older cities. Redwood City eliminated all lead-containing pipes in its public pipelines years ago, but some may remain in homes, Ezell said.

“The plumbing code changed in the 1980s and said you could no longer use lead in brass fittings,” Ezell said. “Homes built prior to that could still have brass fittings that could leach into the water.”

Redwood City took samples from a number of local homes in 2004 and 2006. When it came to lead, none of the samples exceeded the EPA standard of 15 parts per billion, but 45 percent exceeded the state goal of two parts per billion.

Representatives with the California Public Health Department did not return calls for comment, but local officials say the levels are not a cause for concern.

“On the West Coast, we don’t have the lead problems you see on the East Coast” because most municipal pipelines are newer, said Dean Peterson, director of the San Mateo County Department of Environmental Health.

“The water here is less aggressive to pipes, so it doesn’t pull the lead out as much,” he said.

To combat the lead levels in residents’ water supply, Redwood City is advising locals to replace older brass fittings and lead-containing pipes, or just let the tap water flow for 15 to 20 seconds before using.

City Council members asked Ezell this week to begin sending these tips to residents with their monthly water bill.

Redwood City, with much of San Mateo County, is supplied drinking water from the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, which is operated by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.

“It’s difficult to compel people to replace things that are in their homes,” because it can be expensive and time-consuming, SFPUC spokesman Tony Winnicker said.

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

September 12, 2007 at 9:40 PM

Deadly oak virus creeping down mountains

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
July 22, 2007

Sudden Oak Death — the disease that has killed thousands of oaks in California in the last 12 years — is descending from San Mateo County’s highlands and into residents’ yards.

The disease, caused by a fungus called Phytophthora ramorum, was first discovered in 1995, and has killed thousands of oaks and infected dozens of other species since then. Some of those species, particularly the pervasive Bay Laurel trees, seem to be a major vector for the disease’s spread, according to Ronald Pummer, deputy agricultural commissioner for San Mateo County.

The virus is beginning to spread from open-space preserves to the backyards of residents in wooded areas such as Woodside and Portola Valley. The town of Woodside will host a public workshop on Sudden Oak Death and its prevention Aug. 2.

“It seems to be moving into lower elevations than we saw previously,” Pummer said. “We have some in Hillsborough, Portola Valley — it’s moving down the mountainsides.”

While Sudden Oak Death hasn’t been spotted in San Mateo County’s flatlands, it could eventually make its way downhill, “as long as there are Bay Laurels there,” Pummer said.

Woodside resident Virginia Dare recently inoculated the large, old oak trees in her yard after seeing oaks dying of Sudden Oak Death on Old La Honda Road, near her property. Trees not yet infected with the fungus can be vaccinated with a fungicide — a step she and her neighbors took to prevent the disease from killing their trees.

“When an oak is dying on your property, it’s like losing a family member, to be honest,” said Dare, who is a member of Woodside’s Open Space Committee. “They are really irreplaceable.”

Because towns such as Woodside and Portola Valley are so heavily wooded, they wanted to teach residents about the disease and what can be done to identify it, or even halt its spread, according to Teresa Dentino, a member of Woodside’s Conservation and Environmental Health Committee.

Woodside is already working with the California Oak Mortality Task Force, county open-space agencies and fire departments to study Sudden Oak Death’s spread in the community, according to Dentino.

“As a town, we wanted to be very proactive about this issue,” Dentino said. “The trees are a resource, in terms of ecology and wildlife habitat, as well as the aesthetic component and maintaining what we really treasure here.”

Woodside will host a Sudden Oak Death workshop on Aug. 2 at 7:30 p.m. at Woodside Town Hall, 2955 Woodside Road.

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

July 22, 2007 at 10:39 PM