Three weeks ago, the company spilled 4,000 gallons of chemicals into nearby wetlands, drawing attention to its dismal safety record at a time that the state is deciding whether to grant it a permit to expand. Residents who believe Romic is a cause of East Palo Alto's disproportionately high asthma rates are using the incident to publicize their case and press the state to deny the permit.
Romic is what land use folks call a "noxious use," meaning it's the kind of place people pay extra in order to live far away from it and the kind of place that you are far more likely to find in poor communities.
A column by Don Kazak in Wednesday's Palo Alto Weekly issue even implies (perhaps unintentionally) that pollution from Romic is a serious concern only now that East Palo Alto started to gentrify, an argument that seems to keep with the Weekly's new policy of only writing positive stories about East Palo Alto.
But this is a positive story about East Palo Alto. It's a negative story about the rest of us, and our out-of-sight, out-of-mind attitude towards environmental problems that we foist on poor communities. The toxic waste flowing into Romic comes from the same Silicon Valley companies that we venerate for giving us nifty products, well-paying jobs, and (in some cases, at least) success in the stock market. Romic is not to blame for creating toxic waste, only for doing a shoddy job taking care of it.
In the afterword to the tenth anniversary edition of Out of the Channel, his book on the Exxon Valdez spill, John Keeble criticizes the outrage that temporarily consumed the public before we all got behind the first Gulf War. His words still bear repeating:
"In what does a company such as Exxon find the faith to perpetuate its half-truths and outright lies? The answer, perhaps, is in the reluctance of much of the American population to penetrate the loop of power, its preference for living in a fog, and its willing acceptance of almost anything in return for the opportunity to keep its gas tanks topped off. We are Exxon.
"The American consumer, as we have allowed ourselves to be called, is a dangerous influence -- dangerous in the sense that our insatiable appetite for raw materials causes continuous and often destructive change in the world. We seem unable to attend to the affects of our habits. ... We insist upon action only fleetingly, and only when faced with calamity. Then, as the incident in Prince William Sound would suggest, the nation flagellates itselfs itself, the press and broadcast news feed our frenzy with half-assimiliated information, and we fasten on symbols in order to allay our disturbing sense of ignorance and guilt."
Best of luck to YUCA and others in East Palo Alto speaking up for the rights of the community. But even if Romic disappears, the demand for its services will still exist. Nothing excuses what has happened at the plant over the last several decades, but it's time to stop pretending that we are not all in some way responsible for its existence.