Fall/ Winter 2001

On Questionable Grounds:
Land Grab Unhindered Despite History of Contamination

by Karina Ioffee


photo by Paul Myers, el Andar

With land becoming such a hot commodity in the Silicon Valley, contractors don’t care where they build. Some have looked to blighted areas, some with a history of contamination, as a chance to create yet another business park or residential neighborhood, often at a discounted price. And the scariest part of all is that there is virtually no oversight.

Known as brownfields, these lots were once considered off limits and fenced off, but they are now being marketed all over the South Bay, made even more attractive by a handsome discount that can be as high as fifty percent.

“The perception is that they are contaminated,” says Arnold Peters, a policy analyst for the Senate Environmental Quality Committee in Sacramento. “But nobody knows for sure. And nobody wants to spend money to find out.”

For years the remedy for people living near brownfields was to move to the suburbs. Those who couldn’t leave stayed and paid the price with the uncertainty of what might become of their health. Many just looked the other way. If the city wasn’t saying anything, there wasn’t a problem, they thought.

City governments have been hesitant about taking on any role in the cleanup, unless a project was city-funded. “These real estate transactions are not mandated by the state or federal government,” says Gary Lynch, environmental compliance manager for the city of San Jose. “The people who buy them do so at their own risk.”

Realtors have taken to purchasing environmental insurance to protect themselves from any nasty surprises they might uncover down the road once the cleanup starts.

“Few sites remain derelict for long in the Silicon Valley, even though they have a history of contamination,” says Michael Stanley-Jones of Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, an environmental group that monitors water, toxics, and air quality in the Silicon Valley. An example is Moffett Field, a NASA research center and a superfund site since 1987, where high amounts of CPBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and lead were found. Although cleanup is nowhere near finished, the site has already been allocated for a high-tech research park and an extension of the University of California Santa Cruz campus.

“It comes down to the dollar,” says Virginia Robinson, Community Projects Coordinator of the Sustainable Water Program, one of the many projects of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. “People are afraid of spending any money. They only see the short-term benefits and not how further investigations could aid them in the future.”

Residents have taken it upon themselves to monitor cleanups in progress, saying that while the remediation of sites is important, it must not be done at the expense of other things — such as air quality. Recently, air stripping, a process that many companies rely on to clean contaminated ground water, has come under scrutiny from groups who say that while soil is being detoxified, more chemicals are being released into the atmosphere, with unknown results. “Nobody has a really good handle on these chemicals or how they’re evaluated,” says Jeff Seagull, a chemist and member of Sustainable Mountain View, a community group that has formed around the issue.

Numerous studies have shown that Latinos and other minorities are more affected by proximity to contaminated sights because they are more likely to live in inner cities and near old industrial and commercial properties. (see Toxic Neighborhood).

But In Silicon Valley, middle and upper classes may also be exposed. “The unique thing about [Silicon Valley] is that people used to think that the high-tech industry was clean,” says Lenny Siegel, director of Center for Public Environmental Oversight in San Francisco.

Companies such as Intel, Fairchild and National Semiconductor, whose names now grace the local Superfund list, were built in Sunnyvale and Mountain View, where the median price for a single-family home is $546,000. The polluters may have moved out, but the chemicals are often still there, as new buildings spring up to replace them. “These sites have been passed from owner to owner over the years, so it’s very difficult to get anyone to take responsibility and clean up,” says Toxics’ Coalition’s Robinson.

So far, there has been little incentive by the city to get land owners — past and present — to do anything to correct the problem. In January 2001, some $80 million was approved for low-interest loans to anyone interested in investigating and redeveloping a brownfield. Its impact remains to be seen. Another recent bill, SB648, created an environmental insurance program to cover unexpected costs that may come up while investigating a property. “It works like any regular insurance by reducing the risk and uncertainty associated with it,” says Arnold Peters, of the Senate Environmental Quality Committee.

These small steps show that while the economic frenzy that surrounded Silicon Valley is still very much in effect, people are slowing down to think about the impact of building on environmentally-questionable property.
“What we’re trying to do is raise awareness,” says Jeff Seagull. “People who are living in the proximity of these sites should know what’s going on.”

© 2001 El Andar Magazine


Silicon Shame Series

Photo Gallery
Infographics and Maps
More Web Resources

Week 1
Minding the Neighbor's Business
by Hillary Cargo

Chemical Lobbies, the Terrorist Threat and Your Right to Know
by Julia R

Week 2
The Clean Room Paradox
by Karina Ioffee

High-Tech Home Workers
by Karina Ioffee

Week 3
The Poisoned Neighborhood
by Catherine T. Worth

On Questionable Grounds: The Brownfields Real Estate Boom
by Karina Ioffee