[svlug] Silicon Valley's Tech Waste Problem
amcgee at freeshell.org
Wed Jan 29 12:02:57 PST 2003
January 28, 2003
Silicon Valley's Tech Waste Problem
By Jane Meredith Adams
SAN FRANCISCO -- In Silicon Valley, the land of
technological whiz kids, astronomically expensive bungalows
and glorious palm trees, the underside of the computer
revolution keeps seeping up -- literally.
The valley, located about 25 miles south of San Francisco,
has been struggling for more than a decade to deal with
semiconductor manufacturing solvents that have seeped into
the groundwater, a problem that has made pricey Silicon
Valley the home of the largest concentration of Superfund
toxic waste sites in the nation.
Now the news is worse: The Environmental Protection Agency
said last week that the suspected carcinogen
trichloroethene, known as TCE, may be many times more
harmful than originally thought, and that vapors from the
substance have been found inside homes and office buildings.
In addition to the Silicon Valley sites, the EPA said that
this new assessment of the risk of TCE also may affect
between 500 and 750 Superfund sites across the nation.
"The sampling data I've seen thus far suggests that a large
number of people in Silicon Valley might be breathing TCE at
levels higher than what the EPA provisionally considers
acceptable," said Lenny Siegel, executive director of the
Center for Public Environmental Oversight and a resident of
Mountain View, Calif., which has one of the largest
concentrations of TCE-contaminated groundwater.
"It's round-the-clock exposure for those of us who live in
this area," Siegel said.
In the 1960s and 1970s, businesses including Fairchild
Semiconductor Corp., Intel Corp., Raytheon Co., NEC
Electronics and Mitsubishi used TCE to clean silicon wafers
and disposed of thousands of gallons of TCE in underground
metal and fiberglass tanks, according to the EPA.
The tanks corroded and leaked, although it was years before
the damage was discovered.
The corporations involved are cleaning up the sites,
although they no longer own or operate the former
The EPA said the solvents have not affected the drinking
water in Mountain View because most of the community's water
comes from the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in the Sierra Nevada.
Other sources are deep wells and treated surface water not
located near Superfund sites.
Residents getting alarmed
When managers from the EPA traveled to Mountain View last
week to give citizens an update, many residents expressed
concern that their health and property values were in
jeopardy. "The news is always presented as `Be not
alarmed,'" said Barbara Goodwin, who lives 1 1/2 miles from
toxins buried under what is considered to be the birthplace
of Silicon Valley: the former Fairchild Semiconductor plant
where engineers made the first computer chips in the world.
"But I'm alarmed."
Goodwin, 66, has lived in the valley for 10 years and has
suffered breast cancer and chronic bronchitis. "I don't
think it's smart to be here," said Goodwin, a former nurse.
According to the draft of an EPA toxicity report, TCE is 5
to 65 times more hazardous to human health than previously
understood. The agency said that vulnerable populations --
which include children and some people with chronic health
problems -- may face higher risks of kidney, liver,
cervical, prostate and lymphatic-hematopoietic cancer.
"There are no immediate health risks," said Alana Lee, EPA
project manager for two of Silicon Valley's 29 Superfund
sites. "We're really making sure there would be no long-term
health effects at the site by taking air samples." The
indoor and outdoor sampling is set to begin this spring, she
Soil removed, walls erected
Cleanup has consisted of removing contaminated soil,
building walls to contain the contamination, and pumping
TCE-contaminated groundwater into "air-strippers" --
structures that allow TCE to evaporate into the air. Using
previous toxicity standards for TCE, the EPA said in 1999
that the emissions from the air-strippers do not pose a
significant health risk to occupants of the buildings that
have been erected on Superfund sites, including Netscape
Communications Corp. and Nokia. Air in those locations will
now be retested.
Ted Smith, executive director of the Silicon Valley Toxics
Coalition, said many workers have no idea that toxic waste
is underneath and around their companies. "Rising from the
ashes of the semiconductor industry have been new
industries," Smith said. "They've located here without
informing their workers that they were coming to work on top
of a Superfund site."
Most U.S. semiconductor manufacturing is now done in other
parts of the country, including Albuquerque and Austin,
Texas, using safer standards for underground storage tanks.
Vapors rising into buildings
In addition to the TCE that is sent into the air through the
air-strippers, vapors are rising from the groundwater into
the air and entering buildings through floor cracks and
plumbing ducts, the EPA said. At the Navy's former base at
Moffett Field, which is located across U.S. Highway 101 from
former semiconductor plants and on top of its own
contaminated groundwater, tests have found TCE at a
playground and inside apartments. The levels of TCE are
considered to be a potential long-term health risk using the
EPA's new draft toxicity assessment.
Dag Nybo, a customer support manager at a technology
company, said that he and his wife have begun a crash-course
in researching TCE and worry about the health of their
children, ages 3 and 1. They live two blocks from a Mountain
View Superfund site with TCE.
"My stomach's in a knot," Nybo said. He's thinking of moving
about 15 miles away and at the same time, he's worried about
publicizing his concerns because his assets are tied up in
his house. "I'm concerned about a complete loss of property
values," he said.
Jeffrey Segall, a Mountain View resident who has a PhD in
chemistry, says that the issue now is whether the EPA will
act. "The concerns I've been expressing for a couple of
years now have been validated," he said. "Three years ago
the EPA was saying, `It's within the margin of safety.' Now
they're saying, `We're not so sure.'"
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