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Frontier -- My Company

Fit to Be Tied

Who says you can't fight City Hall? Our battle with the fire and building departments is now in its third year

I can't believe I'm fighting City Hall again. Here we are trading broadsides over a project that should have been finished a year ago. This being an election year, I'm tempted to rant about pointy-headed bureaucrats, except that won't help me at City Hall, and the truth is our contractors haven't made it easy for the regulators to do their jobs.

So once again I'm singing the expansion blues. Listen and I'll tell you everything I know about dealing with regulators, especially of the local and less-sophisticated variety.

My hell began three years ago when our family-run plastic-packaging business embarked on a $4 million expansion. Phase 1 involved enlarging our warehouse with a standard boxy addition. The permits languished in planning-department Neverland for over a year. Approvals for landscaping took eight months.

Now I'm banging on City Hall's door, asking for the go-ahead on an incinerator installation. We need it because we currently use water-based inks that don't deliver the vivid colors our customers demand. We've got to switch to solvent-based inks, but that creates an air pollution problem. The state air-quality regulators required that we install an incinerator to cleanse the air leaving our factory. In fact, this move is a no-brainer for them: They gave us a permit for an incinerator and the inks in six weeks.

But not Union City, Calif. The building department quickly piled up a host of objections. Despite past experience, I was stunned. There are hundreds--if not thousands--of incinerators operating at factories just like ours around the country, and none of those companies, from my research, have been asked to do the things demanded of us. The hazardous materials department has asked us to rewire much of our factory with explosion-proof conduit, a $500,000 expense. The fire marshall demanded sprinklers in the ducts that carry air to the incinerator, even though the solvent concentration will be well below combustible levels.

So how did we end up back in this mess? The pointy-headed--oops, I mean a little self-criticism is in order. Our incinerator manufacturer had plenty of experience and never had permit issues like ours raised elsewhere, but they could have been more aware of how local codes would be interpreted. Moreover, I felt the documents and drawings they sent City Hall were not put together very well. I think that caused alarm bells to go off.

But the city also should share a lot of the blame. In early, informal discussions with regulators (warning: don't trust informal discussions), they pooh-poohed any need to explosion-proof our wiring. But those were not the people who reviewed our plans. Also, it's clear that the city doesn't know much about the toxic and explosive qualities of solvent-based inks. They merely consider the temperature at which the ink could catch fire, instead of noting that the concentration of explosive fumes are miniscule at worst.

Truth is, we couldn't have merely looked to the building codes for guidance. The fire department, for instance, invoked its "authority with jurisdiction," which means it has the power to decree whatever it wants--telling us to install sprinklers in our ductwork, for instance. Nowhere does the building code call for this kind of measure, but since the fire marshal wanted it, we were stuck.

So what do we do? We can't go to our allies in the economic development office for help, because they have since left for other jobs. And negotiating with the bureaucrats won't help because the head of hazardous materials and the fire marshal have already taken new jobs in other cities. So we went back to the drawing board. I hired a consulting engineer, who has worked with the city before, to address the issues raised by the regulators. That has cost us three more months and over $30,000. We just recently resubmitted our plans. I hope we haven't thrown good money after bad.By Kevin Kelly


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