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to the Valley
Imagine the relief the people
of the Valley of the Hearts Delight must have felt when, in the
early 1960s, an industry with promise began knocking on the doors of their
small, agricultural community. An industry that promised growth, promised
staying power, promised jobs without the ugly smokestacks of the steel
industry in Pittsburg or the noise of the automobile industry in Detroit.
Forty years later, the citizens
of what is now called Silicon Valley are wondering if they might have
thought to look at that promise twice.
The high tech industry
created a blatant lie about its so-called cleanliness, said Professor
David Pellow, author of Environmental Injustice in the Valley of Dreams.
They have known from day one that the high tech industry pollutes
the environment and the human body. And who is most exposed to their toxins?
Low-income communities of color, of course.
Silicon Valley is among the
most toxic regions in America. Santa Clara County alone houses 23 Superfund
sites sites the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has declared
the highest priority for environmental clean-up because of their health
hazards. No other county in the nation has more of these sites. On the
Environmental Defense Scorecard, Santa Clara County ranks in the top 10
percent most polluted counties in the United States.
And in Silicon Valley, a region
of both great wealth and great poverty, these toxins dont impact
all people equally. In a recent study, Professor Andy Szasz of University
of California, Santa Cruz mapped out sites that have the highest toxic
emission releases against areas with high populations of Latinos and other
people of color, as well as low-income neighborhoods. The resulting maps
The study done by Professor
Szasz used the EPAs Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) from 1989, which
documented toxic emissions data submitted by individual companies, and
mapped them against census data. The results were clear: over 50 percent
of all TRI emissions were released in households earning $20,000 to $40,000
annually; zero percent were released in households earning over $80,000.
Census tracts with over 23.5 percent Latino populations were over four
hundred percent more exposed to toxic releases than tracts with less than
seven percent Latino populations.
What we are asking for
is that low-income and Latino neighborhoods not carry a disproportionate
burden of toxins in the water they drink or the air they breathe,
said Jay Mendoza of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. Its
not about any one site, its about the long history of environmental
racism in Silicon Valley.
Environmental racism is not
a new subject of study. In the 1970s, reports began trickling out of academia
suggesting that not all communities are equally impacted by environmental
hazards, and these inequalities arent accidental. Rather, industrial
and city zoning decisions put these hazards in neighborhoods that fight
back least neighborhoods with barriers like language or poverty
to prevent people from successfully organizing against them.
Through the 80s and 90s,
this discrimination created the canon of the environmental justice movement,
and activists and academics began speculating who might be responsible
for these irresponsible decisions: the leaders of the city zoning boards,
of the state boards (at one point, the California State Waste Management
Board commissioned a report that determined that poor, older, conservative,
Catholic communities would be most politically compliant for undesirable
projects) and of the various industries. Included in those implicated
was the cleanest industry of all: high tech.
The California Birth Defects
Monitoring Program studied women who lived within a quarter mile of Superfund
sights, and found these women to be twice as likely to have babies with
neural tube defects and four times as likely to have babies with conotruncal
heart defects. Environmental Defense has calculated that Santa Clara county
residents are exposed to over 100 times the amount of cancerous pollution
emissions than the EPA deems normal. And the New England Journal of Medicine
reported last year that 80 to 90 percent of cancers are due to environmental
exposure, not genetics.
Despite these incriminating
figures, high-tech companies often escape liability for their negative
health impacts because the impacts are not easy to quantify or prove,
especially in communities without political organization.
Holding companies liable is
even more difficult when a community starts feeling the effects of a toxin
long after they are exposed to it, explained environmental law attorney
Richard Alexander, who has worked on dozens of environmental justice cases
in Santa Clara County. Theres just no way to duplicate environmental
exposures from twenty years ago, said Alexander. Only very
rarely are there good data on ground water. We have to look at cancer
clusters, figure out what the cancers are, determine if theyre premature,
determine which chemical induces this kind of cancer, and even then its
difficult. For example, we dont have good data on arsenic
we know its a carcinogen on humans, but not for animals. Without
that research, its hard to prove that its doing the harm.
Only when a toxin is particularly
harsh and fast-acting, and the population affected is large and politically
organized, is litigation against toxic high-tech companies easier.
The Fairchild Semiconductor
manufacturing plant in South San Jose had been dumping industrial solvents
in a leaky underground tank for about four years before some grounds workers
noticed some rust colored dirt. They asked their boss about it, and a
little while later Fairchild mentioned the leak to the Great Oaks Water
Company, just in case there was a problem.
There was a problem.
The tank had leaked 58,000
gallons of 1,1,1 trichloroethane (TCA), a chemical known for damaging
the liver, circulatory system, and nervous system. Just two thousand feet
away, a well providing water to the surrounding neighborhood had twenty
times the acceptable concentrations of TCA.
The neighborhood was a planned
community and built in part to provide housing for the Fairchild employees.
Although people understood that high-tech employees were occupationally
exposed to toxic chemicals, they did not realize that these same people
came home and were exposed again.
In the year or two before
they revealed there was a problem there were lots of concerns that things
werent right, said Ross. People were having stillborns
and babies with birth defects. One little boy had a disease that you only
get from chemicals. He had been adopted and brought into the community;
he got bruises very easily and his life was really very threatened.
Sure enough, in 1985, the Birth
Defects Monitoring Program came out with a study showing a significant
increase birth defects and stillbirths in the neighborhood. Ross and over
500 other citizens living near the plant sued Fairchild for the sixty
miscarriages and 17 cases of major cardiac defects that had been reported
in the neighborhood since the tank was put in. Fairchild settled out of
court for an undisclosed amount.
The Fairchild suit was successful
in part because the contamination occurred in an active, young, middle-class
neighborhood that was able to organize quickly. But activists claim tragedies
its equal are much more frequent in low-income areas and to people of
color, who are rarely compensated for the exposure.
Soon after, Orsua attended
a meeting the high tech company had put on for the community, and they
assured their neighbors that there was no danger in the spill that had
been found on the site.
They said the chemicals
that theyd put in the ground would not come to the surface,
said Orsua. I told them I hate to argue that point, but you
put a board down on the ground and then you pick it up the next day and
youll find that the ground is moist. So where did that moisture
come from? It comes from the ground below it. And they just sort
of looked at me funny.
In a 1991 estimate, the plume
of toxins created by the AMD spill was one and a half miles long and under
or near 200 to 300 homes in the San Miguel neighborhood. The San Miguel
spill was especially controversial because it neighbored the San Miguel
Elementary School, a school that is over eighty percent children of color,
and 44 percent Latino.
Orsua lives in Sunnyvale, a
community of about 120,000 in northern Santa Clara County that is 55 percent
people of color, and has been one of the most impacted by high-tech toxins.
Sunnyvale has six Superfund sites and more than twenty contaminated groundwater
Despite Sunnyvale communitys
efforts to hold the AMD and other local high-tech companies liable for
the health risks and the drop in housing values, no suit in the community
has yet won. Some activists claim that this failure has to do with the
communitys lack of political power.
Sunnyvale is one of the
most impacted areas in the Valley, said Mendoza of SVTC. There
have been so many spills in that area that have been so toxic.
The most toxic of the Superfund
sites in Sunnyvale is the old Westinghouse Corporations manufacturing
plant, which used polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) for decades in making
electrical transformers on their 75-acre facility. When Westinghouse learned
that the PCBs had leaked from their underground storage tanks, they assured
the community that the spill was limited to their site and would not spread
beyond their land.
However, a few years later,
a new development named Victory Village was built nearby, and in their
standard groundwater tests, they discovered the water was contaminated
with PCBs. Upon further investigation, they discovered there was a widespread
toxic plume under the entire neighborhood. The EPA has estimated that
there will be 652 excess cancer cases estimated to arise from contamination
over a thirty-year period.
A lot of people hear
about this kind of stuff and they dont want to stir the pot,
said Orsua. Me, I dont work for the company across the street
so I dont mind. But what do you do when youre working for
them and your boss tells you to dump something out in the field behind
the plant? You do it!
When Rodrigo Cruzs
boss at Romic Environmental Technologies Corporation told him to clean
out a railroad car knee-deep with toxic sludge, he did as he was asked.
He was lowered into the railroad car with a rubber shovel and an oxygen
supply mask held together with duck tape. The man who had previously held
Cruzs job had allegedly been fired for refusing to do the same.
After shoveling for a little while, Cruz called up to his supervisors
that he was having trouble breathing. His coworker Rudy Castanera hauled
him out, walked him to the back of a nearby truck and asked him if he
My air got cut off,
Cruz told him. I took a whiff of vapors.
He cant count from
one to one-hundred, said Raquel Sancho of SCCOSH. Romic didnt
want to give him compensation because he looks normal, so he and his wife
came to us for help.
High tech companies hire Romic
Environmental to get rid of their byproducts. Romic recycles about 13
million gallons of toxic waste annually, most of it produced by companies
such as Intel, Boeing, Hewlett Packard, and National Semiconductor. Romic
is not a member of the electronics industry itself, but instead is a part
of the support network of businesses and side-industries needed to sustain
high-tech companies in Silicon Valley. Often, these industries come with
their own environmental hazards.
Romic is located in East Palo
Alto, an 89 percent minority community, and is one of the citys
largest employers. It has long been a source of complaint by environmentalists.
In 1995, the Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board found abnormally
high concentrations of the carcinogen ferricyanide in the Bay, and traced
it to Romic discharges. In 1998, SCCOSH ran a full page ad in the New
York Times encouraging people to write Intel and the other high-tech companies
using Romic and ask them to boycott the controversial company.
Following the Cruz case, the
EPA fined Romic $105,000 for 13 environmental violations, an amount that
activists feel is a pittance when compared to their multi-million dollar
Romic, both inside and
outside the workplace, is a textbook case of environmental racism,
said Professor David Pellow. And what do they get for it? A small
fine and a little slap on the wrist.
Another sector of this network
is the power industry. While Santa Clara County generally produces enough
electricity to support its citizens and businesses, the high-tech industry
requires more energy than Santa Clara power plants currently supply. To
accommodate this need, heightened due to Californias energy crisis,
the county plans to build more power plants. Where these plants are going
to go is controversial.
One plan will put a power plant
in Alviso, a small, 80 percent Latino community in Northern San Jose.
U.S. Dataport has proposed a $1.2 billion Internet server farm in Alviso,
which would accommodate as much as 30 percent of all Internet traffic
in the world. U.S. Dataport would like to build a 260-megawatt plant to
support the plant using as much energy as about 200,000 homes.
The Alviso community has complained
about the proposed project, pointing out that they already house five
of San Joses landfills and a sewage treatment plant, and claiming
that the city council is simply dumping another undesirable project on
the land. In fact, the entire community is a Superfund site, because a
levy built by the city used asbestos materials. The mainly low-income
residents of Alviso won a suit against the businesses that had used the
asbestos materials after the EPA determined that they were a thousand
times more likely to develop lung cancer.
Theres a long history
of environmental racism in Alviso, said Mendoza of SVTC. Ideally
wed prefer solar or some other alternative energy source, so that
no one in the valley would have lowered air quality. But if it has to
go somewhere, why Alviso?
Although no one has been
incriminated with intentionally locating toxic high-tech facilities
in lower-income neighborhoods or neighborhoods of color, the government
has been proven to do so with other undesirable projects.
How intentional is environmental
racism in Silicon Valley? Academics and activists continue to debate this.
The cities were indeed fighting
for business, says Professor Pellow, but not with naivete. Pellow believes
that the citizens were duped into unreservedly inviting these companies
into their communities because the industry and city officials created
a blatant lie about its own cleanliness. The
high tech industry and the Santa Clara public health and air quality officials
have known from day one certainly from 1950 that this industry
pollutes the environment and the human body, Pellow said. So
all of this stuff about clean industry was a concoction. It was deliberate
and it was not founded on ignorance of new chemicals. The public may be
finding this out now but health officials in the industry have known for
a half-century at the very minimum."
Whether or not the industry
knew about the health risks, the most toxic sites are now concentrated
in low-income areas and neighborhoods of color. How did this happen?
Szasz maps take a historical
look at the movement of industry over the last 40 years, but the most
recent data was recorded in 1990. The 2000 census data wont be user-friendly
for such analysis for another year or two, Szasz says. With the great
changes and gentrification in the last decade, Szasz believes his maps
would be substantially different, but he expects the patterns would maintain.
The maps were also based on
Toxic Release Inventory data, which he says are faulty. The companies
self-report their toxic emissions, and although they cant totally
lie about the data, they can suppress it or spin it, he said. And
only certain companies have to produce the data at all.
Also, a lot of environmental
justice studies are based on data collected by the Superfund program,
which has been widely criticized. One criticism is that the program is
highly political at one point, the EPA made sure there was at least
one Superfund site per congressional district, so every member of congress
would be pressured to support the program. Another criticism is that it
is too bureaucratic and slow: If a site becomes a Superfund, no
ones going to live long enough to see it cleaned up, Attorney
One of the strongest criticisms
is about the cost. Many companies have to spend hundreds of millions of
dollars to clean up a site. One study headed by professors at Duke University
looked at 150 Superfund sites and found that the companies responsible
for the sites spent an average $384 million per cancer case averted.
Hamilton would like to see
regulatory reform in the Superfund program. One of the real problems
is that when you start talking about regulatory reform based on cost analysis,
people think youre really talking about backing away from environmental
protection, but that doesnt necessarily have to be true, the two
fields can have similar goals in mind, said Hamilton.
One reason he cited for the
low cost-effectiveness was environmental injustice. What we found
was that some lower risk areas had very stringent cleanups because they
had high political participation, said Hamilton. Regulators
respond to residents complaints, and some residents yield more political
power. They dont have to pay for it, so they insist on a thorough
Ted Smith, director of the SVTC, believes that in this day and age, the industry and city officials are quite aware of the sociological implications of citing decisions. These are the communities that are least able to defend themselves and fight for their own rights and that has a lot to do with how these decisions get made, he said. The industry and zoning boards consciously make decisions to site things in areas where there will not be a well organized resistance, and they justify it by saying, Well, it has to go somewhere.
We need to start taking the
perspective that all neighborhoods should share the burden equally.