EPA to test homes for toxics on Leong Drive

Agency reverses earlier statements about lack of funding for TCE air testing

EPA officials announced on Friday that their agency has allocated $100,000 to test and remediate homes on Leong Drive that could have unsafe levels of toxic vapors trapped inside.

Groundwater sampling in 2011 found trichloroethylene (TCE) contamination on the east side of Leong Drive under the site of a gas station, hotel and now-vacant Denny's restaurant. How it got there is still under investigation.

The announcement comes after attendees of a March 3 Wagon Wheel neighborhood meeting were shocked to learn of the toxics on Leong Drive -- when residents already were reeling from news about toxic vapors found in homes on Evandale Avenue. Environmental Protection Agency officials had said that there was no funding to do indoor air testing of homes in the area as a search for the polluters responsible was underway.

But after reports appeared in the Voice and other press coverage, that all changed last week.

"We got the word this week that we'll have the money," said Rusty Harris-Bishop, spokesperson for the EPA, in an interview on March 15.

"The fact there's no responsible parties in the area, that doesn't pose an impediment to us," said David Yogi, another EPA spokesperson. "Our priority is make sure people are safe and protected."

EPA officials are set to reach out to residents of the block bordered by Leong Drive, Winston Place, Evandale Avenue and Emily Drive. Indoor air tests are free and voluntary, but landlords must agree to them, according to EPA policy. So far, the EPA has been able to get permission from landlords in every case on Evandale Avenue, where over 30 homes have been tested near the Valley's largest Superfund site, polluted by original computer chip manufacturers including Intel, Fairchild and Raytheon.

"If they found high levels, especially in and around the house, my guess is we'd probably look to live somewhere else," said resident Shannon Bell, who lives with his wife across the street from the highest concentrations of TCE.

The EPA is ready to pay to install systems on the homes, if needed, that pull the vapors from underneath and vent them above the roof-line.

Bell also expressed concern about being able to eat from the orange tree in his backyard, though EPA officials have stressed that it's safe to eat vegetables and fruit grown in TCE contaminated soil.

Concentrations of TCE in groundwater were as high as 12,000 parts per billion (ppb) at the Leong Drive site, much lower than the 130,000 ppb hot spot found on Evandale late last year, where a large amount may have been dumped or found its way along a sewer line. The EPA's groundwater cleanup goal is 5 ppb.

Helen Esquivel said she had lived on the corner of Winston and Leong for 30 years, and had only heard of the toxics at nearby Moffett Field.

"I hadn't heard about it," she said, adding that she would be concerned "if it gets into the water." EPA officials have also stressed that the area's drinking water is safe from TCE contamination.

The nearest public drinking well to the site is at Creekside Park on Easy Street, south of Middlefield Road, and is closed for maintenance, said Gregg Hosfeldt, assistant public works director in Mountain View.

Esquivel said that the contaminated area across the street looks much the same as it did when she moved in. A gas station, hotel and restaurant building have been there ever since.

It is certainly a busy time in Mountain View for the EPA, after discovering potentially unsafe levels of TCE vapors late last year in two homes on Evandale Avenue near Whisman Road and in two large Google office buildings at 369 and 379 Whisman Road. While they may be busy, local EPA officials took offense to being characterized as "overwhelmed," as they were in a Voice editorial last week, suggesting that local Congressional representatives might have to help secure funds for indoor air testing.

"Our actions have demonstrated what we're able to do," Yogi said. "EPA does have emergency funding and other funding mechanisms." He added, "This is not an emergency action."

EPA indoor air project manager Alana Lee said the indoor air of the hotel has already been sampled. TCE concentrations found were "very low," Lee said, adding that the levels were lower than what was found in the outdoor air of the site.

Lee added that the groundwater sampling results showed TCE levels "dropping off" at the western edge of Leong Drive, indicating that the homes may not be at risk.

The EPA calls TCE a "carcinogen by all routes of exposure," including breathing its vapors. Inhalation can cause "hepatic, renal, neurological, immunological, reproductive, and developmental effects," the EPA reported in 2011 for its final health assessment of TCE. Pregnant women are particularly at risk from short term-exposures that can cause fetal heart defects, EPA toxicologists say.


Like this comment
Posted by James
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Mar 22, 2013 at 2:30 pm

I worked at a start up specializing in toxic cleanups back in the early 90's.
There were maps, publicly available at the time, that showed the area of TCE contamination, known to date. A few years later when I read about new developments going in on top of it, I had to scratch my head. Knowing TCE and how it behaves, this was only a matter of time. It makes me sad.

Like this comment
Posted by No toxic waste allowed
a resident of another community
on Mar 22, 2013 at 3:23 pm

I didn't see Mario's family Italian Restaraunt listed and the grocery store and dry cleaners. These businesses have been serving the public for years. I think they should be included in the EPA testing.

Like this comment
Posted by Mr. Worldallwrong
a resident of Blossom Valley
on Mar 23, 2013 at 7:41 am

Better have them test for radiation syphilis while they are at it.

Like this comment
Posted by William Hitchens
a resident of Waverly Park
on Mar 23, 2013 at 4:51 pm

I’m highly suspicious that the EPA suddenly "found" $100,000 dollars for a TCE study while, at the same time, the Federal Govt is suffering through a $85 billion spending sequester for 2013. This sequester, among other things, is seriously damaging our armed forces, degrading airport security and safety, and forcing other cuts in discretionary spending. I can’t help but wonder if the EPA’s sudden windfall is far more more politically than environmentally motivated.

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Posted by Old Ben
a resident of Shoreline West
on Mar 24, 2013 at 6:08 am

Given that the USA spends more on warfare than all other countries put together, I rather doubt that our armed forces are in any way being "seriously damaged" by this "sequester" theatrical. Speaking of theatre, the TSA is a joke. There is no "airport security and safety", Mr. Hitchens. The TSA is worse than useless.

I'm wondering why the polluters aren't being held accountable. Raytheon has plenty of money, as does Intel. They ought to be paying for this.

Like this comment
Posted by Observation
a resident of Cuernavaca
on Mar 28, 2013 at 8:19 am

There are 164 comments (and growing) on the Palo Alto Weekly board about a fancy grocery store closing and only 5 comments about a cancer causing plume affecting the lives of 100s of families. Why don't people care about anything in Mountain View?

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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