Popular Computing Magazine

August 1985


Silicon Valley sprouts few smokestacks, but pollution's a problem all the same

Since the arrival of the Spanish explorers, the view of Northern California's Santa Clara Valley as a verdant paradise has often been voiced but seldom exaggerated. During the '30s, farmers escaping The Dust Bowl referred to the lush vale as the Valley of Heart's Delight. Even through the 1960s, small towns with pastoral names like Mountain View, Sunnyvale, Menlo Park, and Palo Alto snuggled like pearls on the necklace of the San Francisco Peninsula. They were separated by working farms, orchards, and hothouses that were irrigated through the rainless summers by hundreds of wells and massaged by cooling evening breezes from the ocean. But as high-tech manufacturing replaced greener crops in the region now dubbed Silicon Valley, poison entered the paradise.

When the personal computer explosion was sparked in the valley in the mid'70s, few eyebrows were raised. After all, what better way to assuage the drought of those years than the clean, low-profile semiconductor industry? Fairchild, Hewlett-Packard, Lockheed, IBM, and others brought quiet prosperity to the wonderfully temperate region.

But the speed with which Silicon Valley grew was unprecedented. Before you could say semiconductor, everything had seemingly gone berserk. New houses with astronomical prices replaced the orchards, highways choked on new traffic, the once-quiet towns merged into an unbroken tract, and the electronics industry turned out to be an environmental wolf in sheep's clothing.

The fallacy of electronics as a benign enterprise was first revealed in 1981, when it was reported that toxic solvents used in the manufacture of semiconductors had leaked into Santa Clara County's water supply. Both public and private wells were tainted by 1,1,1 trichloroethane (TCA), an organic solvent used to clean grease off silicon=based circuitry. The proximity of the polluted water supplies to IBM and Fairchild manufacturing facilities implicated both companies, and both of them not only have admitted that a problem exists but also have gone to considerable length in cooperating with regional water control officials on research and cleanup efforts.

But the public did not become fully aware of the extent of the problem until late last year, when the EPA released a list of approximately 200 of the most dangerous toxic waste sites in the country. Nineteen sites were in the Silicon Valley, a statistic that gave Santa Clara County the unhappy distinction of having more deadly dumps than any other county in the country.

Ted Smith, chairman of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, was not surprised by the valley's place on the map. In fact, he claimed that there were some 120 known toxic sites in the area. "People are entitled to know that there are serious contamination sites near their neighborhoods," he said, adding that it was "absolutely unconscionable" that the EPA had delayed as long as it did in releasing the list.

Despite Silicon Valley's unenviable position on the EPA's list, however, it became clear at the end of 1984 that no federal Superfund cleanup money would be sent to the valley's rescue. Faced with this news, concerned citizens and activists such as Smith began to tackle the problem on their own, and right from the start they came up against a stumbling block. The entire Bay Area has become essentially one unbroken metropolitan unit, but each municipality still has its own laws governing the lands and waters within its jurisdiction. This patchwork of legislation thwarted initial efforts at valley-wide progress.

At year's end, a poll of local newspaper reporters found that toxic contamination was the top Silicon Valley news story of 1984. Dr. Edward Ginzton of the Stanford Mid-Peninsula Urban Coalition warned industry leaders and workers that if they thought Silicon Valley was a place of abundance, they weren't looking closely enough. George Treichel, a professor of environment at San Francisco State University, cautioned that the valley's growth could easily turn it into another Los Angeles. (Treichel also suggested with tongue in cheek that another earthquake on the order of the 1906 upheaval would do wonders for the future of the valley by deterring the influx of newcomers.)

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As 1985 began, the efforts of concerned citizens and environmental activists were still making little headway. When California issued its own Superfund list on January 12, none of the Silicon Valley sites were among the 10 slated for complete cleanup with the $100 million in funds allocated in a statewide referendum.

Three days later, the results of two state-commissioned studies of the Los Paseos neighborhood--located in South San Jose near an identical TCA leak--were published. The studies found that between January 1, 1980 and December 31, 1981, expectant mothers in Los Paseos had 2.4 times as many miscarriages as those only three miles away. Moreover, Los Paseos babies born during that period had three times the number of birth defects in general and 2.5 times as many heart defects.

Los Paseos residents have filed over 400 lawsuits against Fairchild, who they claim is responsible for the pollution of their water. But in fact the studies do not provide conclusive evidence that the birth defects are directly related to TCA--a number of sources may have contributed to the problem. Governor Deukmejian has earmarked $825,000 in the 1985-86 state budget for continued study of the situation.

There is a bright spot in the future of Silicon Valley's water supply. The very industry charged with toxic leaks has cooperated with local officials to a remarkable degree. Rather than creating the sort of adversarial relationship that has characterized industrial pollution in decades past, companies such as IBM and Fairchild immediately alerted local water-quality officials when they discovered leaks at their plants and have since poured millions of their own dollars into cleanup efforts.

IBM, for instance, has already spent $35 million on cleaning up tainted groundwater, and the company expects that figure to reach $45 million by the end of the year. The firm has drilled over 300 testing and monitoring wells, extracted and purified affected water, and otherwise worked to fulfill its own cleanup plan, which has been approved by the regional water-quality control board.

Similarly, Fairchild has invested over $16 million in extracting, aerating, and filtering water polluted with TCA that leaked from its storage tank in 1981. According to Fairchild's Francine Plaza, the firm is not looking for federal or state funds to support its cleanup, feeling instead that it is entirely appropriate for the company to set things right on its own.

Fairchild, IBM, and most other Silicon Valley electronic manufacturers have banded together t form the Clean Water Task Force, an industry group organized to pool technical information and promote communications. As Fairchild's Plaza puts it, "In addition to being Fairchild employees, we live here," suggesting that members of the industry are as concerned as anyone else about making the region a safer, cleaner place to live.

The search for solutions has begun to turn up some rather sophisticated possibilities. Several teams of researchers are experimenting with strains of bacteria that "eat" the organic solvents so deadly to humans. Introduced into contaminated groundwater, the bacteria could provide an automatic cleanup--the only danger is that what they leave behind might be worse than the toxins they attack. Also, a computer model is being developed by the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park t simulate the flow of underground water. Such simulations may make it easier to pinpoint problem areas and thus help cleanup crew do their job more efficiently.

Of course, optimism on this score presupposes continued support of cleanup efforts, and the latest developments in the region are encouraging. The Safe Water Council--a united group that has the support of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition as well as other environmental groups, local politicians, and all major industries in the region--has recently proposed a comprehensive eight-point program that would address the situation on several levels. State funding for the program seems likely, and the industries supporting the proposal have pledged private financial to match whatever amount the state allocates.

While the eight-point plan emphasizes the cleanup of tainted groundwater, it also concedes that bringing every aquifer back to normal is not realistic. For those cases where a water supply has been polluted beyond immediate recovery, the plan proposes extensive research into methods of treating he water to bring it into line with accepted standards as soon as possible. Part of the problem, however, is that the EPA has not established standards for many of the toxic chemicals in Silicon Valley's water, and another facet of the Safe Water Council's program specifies that standards for permissible levels be established.

So while some progress is finally being made, the problems of polluted water supplies in Silicon Valley are severe. And the situation in California is just the tip of the iceberg. There are already indications of contamination in groundwater near semiconductor-manufacturing facilities in Massachusetts, Arizona, and Vermont. But we can hope that the recognition, research, and cooperation now going on in Silicon Valley will generate workable solutions before other parts of the country find themselves in the same dire straits.

All this suggests that there's still a lot we don't know about the perils of high tech, but at least we are no longer operating under the delusion that electronics manufacturers are somehow in a class apart from industries whose adverse environmental impact has already been widely documented. Computers and other electronic marvels promise to improve the quality of our lives, but we must make sure that we do not destroy where we live in pursuit of that promise.