Fall/ Winter 2001

• Catherine Worth

The Poisoned Neighborhood
The clean industry may be deadly for high-tech workers

• Map of Latino neighborhoods and toxins in Silicon Valley


Welcome to the Valley

  Photo, Paul Myers, El Andar.

Imagine the relief the people of the Valley of the Heart’s 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 don’t 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 overlapped consistently.

The study done by Professor Szasz used the EPA’s 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.

Professor Andrew Szasz.
Photo by Paul Myers, el Andar

“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. “It’s not about any one site, it’s 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 aren’t 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.
“The people in these workplaces and communities are mostly immigrants,” said Raquel Sancho of Santa Clara Center for Occupational Safety and Health (SCCOSH). “The biggest challenge for them is that even when there are informational materials about toxins, they’re never in a language they speak.”

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 high tech industry is responsible for 21 of Santa Clara County’s 23 Superfund sites, and the toxins used and spewed by high tech companies are far from benign. Many of the toxins are industrial solvents like PCBs, Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), and arsenic solutions, used to make semiconductors, transformers and other electronics. – PCBs, Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), arsenic solutions and so on. These chemicals are frequently carcinogenic or otherwise harmful. In Santa Clara Valley, the water table is so shallow that chemicals improperly disposed of, or disposed of in leaky tanks, can end up in the local water supply. Air pollutants can also present health problems, and many high-tech companies are not required to report toxic emissions.

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.
“For one,” said Professor Andy Szasz, “about twenty percent of the population moves every year, and nailing down cumulative effects on a neighborhood that’s on the move is very difficult to do. Another problem is that health is so heavily influenced by class – people with fewer resources have worse health. It’s hard to prove that it has to do with exposure to toxins when people are exposed in a dozen different ways and a given toxin is one in many compounding factors.”

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. “There’s 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 they’re premature, determine which chemical induces this kind of cancer, and even then it’s difficult. For example, we don’t have good data on arsenic – we know it’s a carcinogen on humans, but not for animals. Without that research, it’s hard to prove that it’s 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.
Probably the most famous and successful of such cases was the South San Jose Fairchild spill.

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.
Lorraine Ross had lived near the Fairchild plant in South San Jose for six years and her youngest child was struggling with multiple congenital heart defects. There was talk that something was wrong – on her block alone there were four children with birth defects, two miscarriages, and one stillbirth.

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 weren’t 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.

José Orsua has lived across from the Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) plant and Superfund site in the San Miguel neighborhood of Sunnyvale for 35 years. He remembers the day that he found a dove in his back yard that could barely move. “I picked him up and opened his beak, and in his throat he had a lump that wouldn’t let him pass any food at all, a cancer or a tumor or something,” Orsua said. “The company across the street says ‘Oh, we don’t dump anything.’ Well, I hate to tell you, but they’re dumping something.”

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 they’d 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 you’ll 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 sites.

Despite Sunnyvale community’s 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 community’s 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 Corporation’s 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 don’t want to stir the pot,” said Orsua. “Me, I don’t work for the company across the street so I don’t mind. But what do you do when you’re working for them and your boss tells you to dump something out in the field behind the plant? You do it!”

When Rodrigo Cruz’s 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 Cruz’s 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 was okay.

“My air got cut off,” Cruz told him. “I took a whiff of vapors.”
By the time the fire trucks and ambulances arrived, Cruz collapsed unconscious. He now suffers permanent brain damage.

“He can’t count from one to one-hundred,” said Raquel Sancho of SCCOSH. “Romic didn’t 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 city’s 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 annual revenues.

“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 California’s 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 Jose’s 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.

“There’s a long history of environmental racism in Alviso,” said Mendoza of SVTC. “Ideally we’d 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.
In the early ‘80s, the California State Waste Management Board helped pay for the Cerrell report, which looked at the neighborhoods that would be easiest to site unwelcome waste-to-energy plants. The study found that “All socioeconomic groupings tend to resent the nearby siting of major (waste disposal) facilities, but the middle and upper socioeconomic strata possess better resources to effectuate their opposition… (These plants) can be suggested partly on the basis of neighborhoods least likely to express opposition – older, conservative and lower socioeconomic neighborhoods. Meanwhile the most likely opponents of a waste-to-energy project -- residents in the vicinity, liberal, and higher-educated persons -- can be targeted in a public participation program and public relations campaign."

How intentional is environmental racism in Silicon Valley? Academics and activists continue to debate this.

Professor Szasz believes it wasn’t intentional at all, at first. “Of course, intentional citing does happen, it just wasn’t that way when high-tech showed up in Santa Clara County,” said. “The cities had already laid out the red carpets before there was any inkling it was a hazard – using incentives to bring in the businesses and their tax revenues.”

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?

It’s complicated, Professor Szasz says. “These are highly stereotyped communities. To some degree the toxic exposure is due to discrimination, but it is also self-selection because of the reality of the economics,” said Szasz. “Latinos were filtered into working class jobs, and they move near the factories, and the factories show up where they live. It’s kind of chicken versus egg.”

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 won’t 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 can’t 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 one’s going to live long enough to see it cleaned up,” Attorney Alexander said.

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 you’re really talking about backing away from environmental protection, but that doesn’t 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 don’t have to pay for it, so they insist on a thorough clean up.”

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.”

© 2001-2002 El Andar Magazine


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