Palo Alto resident Bob Wenzlau may be best known locally as the pioneer of the city's curbside recycling program and a leading advocate for a new compost facility, but in recent months he and his company, Terradex, shifted their focus to a different type of waste: the contaminants buried under industrial sites throughout Silicon Valley.
The murky and complex topic of groundwater contamination has been a hot one in cities like Palo Alto, where a toxic plume under what is known as the "Hewlett Packard-Varian site" in the Stanford Research Park raises perpetual concerns about new developments. And in Mountain View, contamination has been found under an industrial site around North Whisman Road, a legacy left by computer companies that occupied the site in the 1970s. Groundwater in both cities contain trichloroethylene (TCE), a chemical that has been deemed a carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Though regulatory agencies have long detailed the potential harm of TCE, including neurological and reproductive, the information about specific Silicon Valley cities isn't easy for a layman to find. Data about these underground contaminants are dispersed throughout dozens of different databases, Wenzlau said, making it difficult for city officials and residents to access and understand the information. This, in turn, makes it hard for cleanup efforts to generate momentum.
To remedy the situation, Terradex created a Web application that consolidates all the information for each Superfund site in the Silicon Valley, as well as for dozens of other contaminated areas. It maps out each toxic plume, provides information about the chemicals and links to pertinent reports from government agencies. Also, rather than illustrating the contamination sites' single points, the company's map stretches them into polygons to give viewers a better idea of each plume's reach.
The application, known as CleanDeck 2.0 and available on the company's site, also provides information about status of the cleanup at each area; maps out areas where environmental protections have been implemented; and illustrates where land-use restrictions exist because of the contamination. It also maps out "sensitive uses" such as schools and day care centers so that users can see the proximity of these amenities to the toxic plumes.
In a January blog post announcing the new application, Wenzlau noted that hundreds of groundwater plumes exist across Silicon Valley, and "many contain volatile chemicals that could migrate upwards to occupied structures and then be inhaled by occupants."
"Over the past 30 years, industry has transformed to new office parks hosting businesses like Google and Facebook," the post stated. "The workforce is smart, growing and young -- but also vulnerable to carcinogenic vapors from shallow contaminated groundwater plumes from legacy businesses."
Wenzlau said he was partially inspired to pursue this project by the fact that his daughter works around Santana Row in San Jose, near another contaminated site. Also, he has friends who work at Google and who may benefit from knowing about harmful contaminants buried underneath the company's campus. The goal, he said, is to make the information clear and easily available.
"I think that too much of the environmental data is designed for environment scientists, not for the public," Wenzlau told the Weekly. "I also believe that once people know more about these hidden toxics, the cleanup process and the oversight process would be strengthened and speeded up. Because these plumes, they have been here for 35 years and at the pace they're going, they'll be here for another 50 years."
The new application is a starting point for what Wenzlau hopes will evolve into a broader effort to bring residents, employers, workers and environmental experts together in a network focused on cleaning up the contamination. Each site on Cleanup Deck 2.0 includes links to Facebook, Google+, Twitter and LinkedIn, and the goal is to create a system through which residents can comment on sites and offer input on ongoing cleanup efforts.
The hope is that the software will create a Yelp of sorts for contaminated sites, with people observing, commenting and updating each other about particular sites. At the same time, he hopes city planners in places like Mountain View and Palo Alto, where his company is based, will use the application. The maps, he said, help illustrate the magnitude of the challenge faced by local, state and federal officials charged with cleaning up the toxins.
"It reveals how unprotected we are because the environmental protections are so much proportionally smaller than the area of impact," Wenzlau said.
Ultimately, the goal is to expand the program from merely illustrating the problem to providing solutions for individuals in impacted areas. As the application evolves, Wenzlau said the company plans to add features that would connect residents and companies with laboratories that can test homes for vapors or help install controls above the plumes to limit exposure.
"By putting together this concept, we're hoping we'll be part of the value circle that offers some testing or helps offer controls through partners that we're working with," Wenzlau said.