News

When semiconductor companies dumped toxics down the drain

Toxics on Evandale Ave. may have come from old sewer lines

Thirty-five years ago, the Palo Alto Times ran a story headlined "Scores of fish killed by chemical spill in creek." It was a sign of the times -- and may help explain mysteriously high concentrations of toxics found on Evandale Avenue and Leong Drive.

The 1978 story reported that 100 dead fish were pulled from Stevens Creek in Mountain View after a spill of acid from Fairchild Semiconductor's manufacturing plant on Whisman Road. The spill found its way to the creek through a storm drain. The next day, the paper reported that a separate "accident" at Fairchild dumped 2,500 gallons of hydrochloric acid down the sanitary sewer system, which flowed to a sewage treatment plant in Palo Alto.

Such dumping was probably common in those days, says Lenny Siegel, director of the center for Public Environmental oversight in Mountain View, and may be the reason why the EPA is finding surprising levels of Trichloroethylene (TCE) under residential areas near the old Fairchild plant -- under Evandale Avenue and Leong Drive, along sewer lines that may have leaked.

"In the '80s I remember people telling me sewage pipes were eaten up by chemicals," Siegel said of talks with a former city employee familiar with the situation. Unfortunately, Siegel believes the city records were destroyed which could help prove this.

Through the 1960s, '70s and '80s, the early manufacturers of silicon chips in Mountain View on and around Whisman Road included Intel, National Semiconductor, Raytheon and Fairchild. Used in the highly chemical process of silicon chip making, thousands of gallons of toxic chemicals were kept in underground storage tanks, which often leaked into the groundwater as well. The companies left behind a massive groundwater plume of toxics that has been undergoing a major cleanup since the late 1980s, with nearly 100,000 pounds of toxics removed.

"What would you do -- back in those days -- before you knew about all these problems?" Siegel said of the alleged practice of dumping chemicals down the drain. "That was the safe thing to do."

The consequence of the newly discovered contamination on Evandale Avenue is that late last year two homes were discovered to have elevated levels of TCE vapors trapped in the indoor air having risen from the contaminated soil and groundwater. Both homes now require the installation of special ventilation systems to keep the vapors out, as inhaling TCE vapors over long periods can cause "hepatic, renal, neurological, immunological, reproductive, and developmental effects" as well as cancer, according to a 2011 Environmental Protection Agency report.

The EPA's investigation into the source of the contamination is on hold because of the ongoing federal government shutdown, Siegel said. A phone call to the EPA's Alana Lee was not returned.

In march, EPA official Penny Reddy told a large crowd at a neighborhood meeting that the groundwater samples taken every 100 feet along Evandale Avenue were "puzzling, curious" and could be the result of "dumping something down a drain or falling off a truck, we don't know what the source is at this point."

The biggest hot spot was found in front of the 200 block of Evandale Avenue, where 130,000 parts per billion of TCE was found in the groundwater about 13 feet down the same level as the sewer line under the street. To put the amount in perspective, the concentration is 26,000 times higher than the EPA's cleanup goal of 5 parts per billion, and it is higher than any concentration currently found in the larger nearby plume.

"The responsible parties argue that it was midnight dumping," Siegel said of the polluters. "If it was midnight dumping, they are the most likely parties to have conducted it. Somebody who worked for them who was just trying to get rid of a barrel or a can. That doesn't take them off the hook. There wasn't an electronics plant on the residential side of Whisman Road."

Siegel believes that a leaky sewer line or storm drain may also be to blame for the contamination found under and just west of Leong Drive, where concentrations are as high as 12,000 parts per billion. The EPA is still investigating that, and promised to do indoor air sampling of the nearby homes, though there was no indication that the contamination reached any homes.

Comments

Posted by Old Ben, a resident of Shoreline West
on Oct 21, 2013 at 10:05 am

So your wildly overvalued Mountain View real estate is contaminated with insanely dangerous carcinogens dumped by some of the leading tech firms in this Valley? Hey, no problem: ban plastic grocery bags and smoking on Castro Street.

You people crack me up. I can't wait to get out of this town.


Posted by Matt, a resident of North Whisman
on Oct 21, 2013 at 11:37 am

@Old Ben .. Great point, agree 100%, and couldn't have said it better myself.


Posted by Wise Ben, a resident of Blossom Valley
on Oct 21, 2013 at 1:02 pm

Uh-huh. See you tomorrow Old Ben...and the next day, and the next.


Posted by Martin Omander, a resident of Rex Manor
on Oct 21, 2013 at 2:39 pm

I feel for the people who live there and are getting exposed; it's no joke to them. At least today's software companies don't contaminate as much. And hopefully we have learned a lesson or two about toxic waste since the 1960s.


Posted by LoveYourDNA, a resident of Old Mountain View
on Oct 21, 2013 at 2:43 pm

Ditto, Old Ben. I used to love the Bay Area; worked at Yahoo! back in the day, always had fun jobs, but now... life ain't so grand here. Google wealth, etc., is driving out many of the old timers. WE built this valley and deserve respect too!


Posted by stuart, a resident of The Crossings
on Oct 21, 2013 at 3:30 pm

It's too easy to be flippant using characterizations that unfairly blanket a community where people living and working in MV had absolutely nothing to do with the past, or have current occurences (elevated laboratory values)that are unrelated to current life (ie working at Google, fun jobs, wealth, etc.) Hey, if you don't like it here, but don't mind the income, access to modern ammenties and affluence for the short term, and your answer and level of participation is to threaten to leave and disparage property values, then take your NIMBY selfish mentality and move to pristine spot in the middle of Montana like the Unibomber, Uncle Ted. Civilization is about working through problems with some decorum, process, and intelligence vs criticism, consumerism, and abandoning for perceived greener psstures. Define greener pastures and who is attending to the problems of those greener pastures....good luck.


Posted by Scott Lamb, a resident of Monta Loma
on Oct 22, 2013 at 11:20 am

Scott Lamb is a registered user.

These comments are a perfect example of why I have no respect for the whining about newcomers. Somehow a story about toxic waste dumping 35 years ago has turned into an opportunity to complain about Google. There are many reasons that's absurd. Among them: Google has only existed for 15 years, has never done large-scale manufacturing in Mountain View, and has a phenomenal environmental record. Web Link (Full disclosure: I work for Google.)

This isn't a story about newcomers metaphorically destroying Mountain View; it's a story about old-timers literally destroying Mountain View. If you were here in the '60s, '70s, and '80s, you had far more responsibility for creating these superfund sites than the average Google employee, even if you didn't dump the chemicals down the drain yourself. A little humility might be in order.


Posted by Otto Maddox, a resident of Monta Loma
on Oct 22, 2013 at 3:18 pm

Thank the lord they only do this in China now.

Hee hee..

Funny how people bash Google for something they had absolutely nothing to do with.


Posted by Hmm, a resident of Monta Loma
on Oct 22, 2013 at 4:52 pm

I say bring back the Company's representatives and rub some of the dirt in there faces and then make them pay for cleaning it all up, Intel, National Semiconductor, Raytheon and Fairchild.

What they lost the evidence, how typical.

"Unfortunately, Siegel believes the city records were destroyed which could help prove this."


Posted by the_punnisher, a resident of Whisman Station
on Oct 22, 2013 at 7:52 pm

the_punnisher is a registered user.

My brother worked in the" Rust Bucket " ( the Fairchild Semiconductor Fab Area ), I worked at the 915 Bulding for AMD.
Our parent's house ( information the Voice already has ) is near Leong Drive.
My brother was one of the first " bicycle " commuters and worked graveyard.
There is no question that these FAB areas could do a better job of handling chemicals and disposing of them properly, when I got the job at Cray Rsearch, they were just finishing up the building of a completely SAFE Wafer Fab area for $5M. That was the CIVIC DUTY that Cray Research felt about having a campus in Chippewa Falls.

Meanwhile, all sorts of contamination issues were surfacing in the SFBA. Even the mighty IBM was doing it, so every other company felt justified in doing the same thing.

AMD had several " incidents " over the release of ARSINE gas in a fab area.

What needs to be clearly understood:

A POSSIBLE RELEASE OF TOXIC CHEMICALS IN THE AIR WAS THE PRIMARY CONCERN OF THE DIFFERENT SEMICONDUCTOR FAB SITES!

I'm talking BHOPAL type slaughters that could have happened if a " Big One " had actually hit the Left Coast.

Even just working in a FAB area was risky then. I called the gasses used " two step " gasses because that was how long you would live after a delivery tree malfunctioned or physically cracked.
At Cray Research, I was given the MSDS paperwork and was required to read it. I already knew about the SCUBA gear WE HAD ( and the Silicon Valley Fabs DIDN'T ) and the documents made it clear: You used the SCUBA gear TO DRAG THE DEAD BODIES OUT!!

Yes, Mountain View and the rest of the South Bay HAVE BEEN VERY LUCKY.
Groundwater Contamination was never thought about by Grove or Sanders. Not by Data General ( I worked at their Semiconductor Divison in SV too )

The real question: Why was Cray Research able to build a proper, self contained Fab area when Silicon Valley could not...or refused to do?

P.S. Every Cray employee associated with the Fab Area had to take a MONTHLY piss test...for exposure to the metals and gasses used to make our prototype ICs..and why wasn't the same thing done for the same workers in the SFBA Fab Areas...I guess the workers were more expendable....


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