Chronicling the dirty side of 'Techville'

'From Cleanrooms to Dirty Water' traces pollution history of Silicon Valley

The pioneering work of Silicon Valley on microprocessors, computers and circuits may have bestowed the region with abundant wealth and jobs, but it also carries a darker legacy.

By one measure, Santa Clara County remains the most polluted region in the United States, largely from groundwater contamination caused by the area's former semiconductor factories, said Christophe Lecuyer, a historian at the Universite Pierre et Marie Curie in France.

Lecuyer, who earned his doctorate in history from Stanford University, has made a career out of chronicling the history of Silicon Valley. In the popular narrative, that history has largely been told from the perspective of technological innovation and prosperity, Lecuyer said, explaining that he wanted to trace the area's environmental damage.

In an Aug. 17 lecture titled "Cleanrooms and Dirty Water," delivered at Mountain View's Computer History Museum, Lecuyer charted decades of pollution caused by general negligence and recklessness among many of the South Bay's iconic corporations, including Intel, IBM and Fairchild Semiconductor.

Going back decades, semiconductor and chip manufacturing were considered "clean" industries, and often cities categorized them as light manufacturing, he said.

"It wasn't uncommon to see middle-class families living right across the street from semiconductor factories in Mountain View and elsewhere," Lecuyer said. "These firms gave a very low priority to worker safety and environmental protection."

Manufacturing computer parts requires huge quantities of toxic chemicals. Semiconductor production used arsine and phosphine gases that previously had been weaponized in World War I trench warfare as well as industrial solvents such as trichloroethylene and trichloroethane.

It was later revealed that some firms, such as IBM, had known for decades that these chemicals were hazardous, but that information wasn't shared with workers or neighboring residents. In fact, most firms in the 1960s and 1970s had little to guide them in identifying safety hazards. Typically, toxic chemicals were recognized by the smell.

Dangerous incidents were commonplace, such as fires, chemical spills and injuries. State records cited by Lecuyer show that Santa Clara County's early tech companies had an "illness" rate three times higher than the average for all other industries in California. The state's classification for illness included acid burns and chemical inhalation, which were the main causes for reported illnesses in the county.

This callousness also took a toll on the environment. There were about 250 chemical tanks throughout Silicon Valley that had little monitoring and were routinely leaking or were sometimes dumped intentionally into the groundwater, Lecuyer said.

If Lecuyer's story has any heroes, they were a group of women, including Amanda Hawes, Patricia Lamborn and Robin Baker. They were largely working on behalf of organized labor to identify the chemicals that were being used and how they were affecting public health. They helped launch local advocacy groups including PHASE and the Electronics Committee on Occupational Safety and Health.

In the 1970s federal industrial regulation was basically nonexistent. During the decade, policymakers created the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, but it took years for those agencies to begin significant enforcement in Silicon Valley.

Around 1980, the problems became impossible to ignore. An article series by Susan Yoachum of the Mercury News put a spotlight on safety lapses in the semiconductor industry and spurred government intervention as well as a wave of lawsuits by injured workers. The Sunnyvale Fire Department found 900 violations during a survey at a Signetics plant, Lecuyer said.

Under scrutiny, the corporations implemented new safety measures, such as double-piping for all hazardous chemicals and regular toxic monitoring. New safety training was introduced and companies created chemical response teams.

Nevertheless, many companies soon came to realize they had a bigger problem on their hands. Fairchild Semiconductor officials learned that a solvent tank in San Jose had leaked more than 40,000 gallons of solvents into the groundwater, and other companies soon made similar reports.

While the authorities were notified of this, no action was taken until many residents in the area began linking the contamination to birth defects and health problems.

In a sense, the Bay Area was "fertile ground" for the public to demand accountability and regulation. Facing public pressure, the EPA set up 19 Superfund sites in Santa Clara County the most Superfund sites in any single county in the United States, Lecuyer said.

"For the EPA, in some ways Santa Clara County is the most polluted region in the U.S.," he said. "With the pollution of these aquifers, it's never going to be (back) to the way things were in the 1960s."

It really depends on how you measure pollution, said Lenny Siegel, a Mountain View councilman who spent decades involved in environmental advocacy and contributed documents for Lecuyer's research. The South Bay is among the worst for solvents like TCE contaminating groundwater; however, other areas in the country are far worse for air pollution and petrochemicals, he said.

One unique aspect of the local dust-up over toxic hazards was that Silicon Valley became a model for community engagement, regulation and various techniques for remediation, Siegel said. Vapor-intrusion venting was first tested out here, and to this day more new methods of purging contaminants are being piloted in the local Superfund plumes.

"The EPA used this area to try out new things," he said. The cleanup efforts "didn't just have an impact here on the companies, it set the standard for engaging the public."

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14 people like this
Posted by sad
a resident of Mountain View
on Aug 31, 2016 at 10:18 am

It is really sad this this the polluted water here has become a secret. When we first moved here in the late 1970s, toxic waste and Superfund sites were big news. Government agencies published maps, newspapers were constantly reporting about them, and real estate agents and buyers paid close attention. We were careful to buy a home far from the Superfund sites. During the Reagan/Bush years, the government apparently stopped publicizing this problem and the newspapers and real estate industry followed suit. Today, most of the Superfund sites are still there, but no one talks about them anymore. A new generation has grown up right on top of the toxic waste without knowing about it. That is scary.

8 people like this
Posted by allen
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 31, 2016 at 11:02 am

I recall a discussion in the 70's where someone from one of the semiconductor facilities was complaining that their tanks for storing these nasty chemicals had to be underground by order of the fire marchael. They also had to be steel for the same reason. But they never got full no matter how much they poured into them so they knew they were leaking. They wanted above ground tanks made of fiberglass so they would not rust and they could tell if they were leaking. In hindsight, they should have dug them up but any replacement would soon have the same fate. Basically, the laws of the time contributed to the problem. It wasn't just the companies involved.

I have a philosophy in life that says it is difficult to judge the action of people in the past when you probably don't understand the culture and environment of the time.

10 people like this
Posted by Jon Castor
a resident of Woodside
on Aug 31, 2016 at 1:02 pm

Jon Castor is a registered user.

If memory serves (and it may not be entirely reliable, it was a while ago), the semiconductor industry started to recognize and address the problem in the latter part of the 70's. One of the few good things that came from Schlumberger acquiring Fairchild in 1979 was that new CEO from SLB was serious about cleaning up overseas as well. The assembly plant in Indonesia was operating to Indonesian standards, which at that time meant just about anything goes. He mandated that the plant be brought up to US standards - no more dumping mercury down the drain, and in to the street. Just about everything else about the acquisition was bad news, as has been thoroughly chronicled elsewhere, but this move to extend better operating practices throughout the world was a very good thing.

23 people like this
Posted by Still Sick
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 31, 2016 at 1:17 pm

Still Sick is a registered user.

We bought our first house in the Santa Teresa area of south San Jose in 1979. Our water was supplied by the now-defunct Great Oaks Water Co. All of that water supplied by that company had been contaminated by Fairchild and Minolta.

Babies were born with birth defects, dogs had malformed puppies, cats gave birth to deformed or dead kittens, even people who had vegetable gardens noticed strange,misshapen vegetables that were mostly foul-tasting and inedible.

There was also a rather large cluster of children in the Santa Teresa area with chemical allergies, leukemia and other rare childhood cancers, and seizure disorders.

I had four miscarriages within two years, in addition to a stillbirth. My stillborn daughter's liver was enlarged and found to contain a large amount of TCE-- as did mine.

Getting out of that house in Santa Teresa meant we had to sell it short. We continued to pay on that mortgage until 1990. We never received any sort of recompense from Fairchild OR Minolta-- not even for all the medical bills incurred due to their pollution of the groundwater there!

3 people like this
Posted by Ghost in the Machine
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 31, 2016 at 4:53 pm

What?! Does this mean that land in the Valley will go to the lowest bidder in the next 1/4 of a Century?? Perhaps we too will become a ghost in it's own machine like Michigan's Motortown (Detroit) is now?

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

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