Post-industrial Silicon Valley
July 29, 2013 9:59 AM   Subscribe

Not Even Silicon Valley Escapes History

Storage tanks were placed underground, out of sight and out of mind. Until suddenly, in 1981, people in south San Jose living near Fairchild Semiconductor and IBM realized they were drinking water contaminated by the two firms' manufacturing plants.

That touched off a search to see if similar leaks were occurring at other sites. "Anyone who looked for leaks found them," Will Bruhns of the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Board told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2004. The final count found that 75 of the 96 underground tanks in the south Bay had contaminated the ground and/or water around them.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe (15 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Thanks for posting about this. The toxic crap buried around the Valley (as I understand it, Silicon Valley is home to the largest concentration of Superfund sites anywhere) is a bit of a dirty little secret, occasionally gaining notice when vapors are seeping into a Google building, but generally largely ignored, even as tech companies build solar-powered car charging stations and other eco-friendly features on top of the very same sites.
posted by zachlipton at 10:31 AM on July 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

We can only imagine what the water is like in Taiwan and China.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:36 AM on July 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

There was a JDS Uniphase chip assembly facility in Victoria BC in and around 2000. I lived here for a few months while I was getting credits for a second undergrad degree, and needed some part-time work. The local Manpower office was stuck with finding assemblers. I didn't make the cut - at that time working at JDS Uniphase was the top-rung of the low-wage service economy here.

And then the facility left town. It was replaced by a West call centre. West eventually had to leave, because unemployment levels dropped, while the Canadian dollar rose.

Now, just like Silicon Valley, there are a ton of developer and engineering jobs here, too many to be filled just by local talent.

Better quality of life than Silicon Valley, though.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:39 AM on July 29, 2013

I have worked in environmental remediation in California, and this site may seem like a lot, but it is merely large. Almost any historically industrial site is probably an environmental clean-up site. And if it isn't yet, it is just because no one has gotten around to testing the soil and groundwater there yet. Practically every gas station built over 10 years ago is or has been an environmental clean-up site. Dry cleaners, furniture shops, etc... all of them dumped something on the ground or down the drains that is still hanging out nearby. Most research universities have a few superfund sites, typically with the added bonus of radiation clean up as well.

Bulk oil terminals and other large industrial plants are almost always huge cleanup sites, with cleanup programs that span decades. I have worked on sites that have not been gas stations for 35+ years, and they are still contaminated. These sites are in the places where they care enough/have enough money to regulate and monitor them. Go out into the more rural counties, and a lot of the plumes change from petroleum to pesticides, but they are out there.
posted by Badgermann at 10:55 AM on July 29, 2013 [3 favorites]

I work near that Google building and the field behind my office is full of fruit trees (bonus, figure out where I likely work.). We send out e-mails every so often to remind employees to not eat the fruit of those trees…talk about your fruit of a poisoned tree.

I understand the field is a Superfund site from an old Intel chip fab. There's apparently concern that the waste plume will go under Moffett AFB and then reach the Bay.
posted by caphector at 12:12 PM on July 29, 2013

Yep. There's a bunch of empty land in Mountain View that seems prime for development, but nope, superfund site. I'l just happy the stuff seems to be seeping away from my house and not towards it.
posted by GuyZero at 12:13 PM on July 29, 2013

Meh, Metafilter thinks this guy's just being overly dramatic.

Well, it's true to some extent. I would not be happy about weird vapours if they were in my building, but yes, I'm more likely to get hit by a car while biking or get melanoma or something.
posted by GuyZero at 12:14 PM on July 29, 2013

Glad I'm not in that building, or had some real drama. Too bad my wife works next to Netscape's toxic tower. Here's hoping our future kids don't have birth defects.
posted by jewzilla at 12:53 PM on July 29, 2013

When I was shopping for my house back in 2004 my realtor showed me a map of the bits of Sunnyvale and Mountain View to avoid because of contamination. There are some nice-looking modern developments like Whisman Station that are actually a bit dodgy because of contamination nearby. However, there are lots of good neighborhoods elsewhere that were previously orchards.
posted by w0mbat at 2:24 PM on July 29, 2013

The Andersen Library, University of Minnesota's rare book and archive library, is built into caverns dug in the west bank campus of the Twin Cities. Which would be great for an archive, except for all of the industrial contamination (being an underground structure right next to a river doesn't help, either). I seem to remember hearing stories of books rotting (which seems like a bad thing in an archive), but I can't find mention of that, although the copper wiring corrodes rather quickly.

And, just to make sure this is on topic even though it's not tech industry waste, I'll mention that Andersen is the home of the Charles Babbage Institute.
posted by ckape at 2:28 PM on July 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

One of the most ubiquitous stores in the low income and immigrant neighborhoods in San Jose is the bottled water store. I always thought that was an example of hucksterism and exploiting immigrants, but now I have to wonder if they just know better.

But really heavy metal poisoning is not as much a concern for local water as the fecalform contamination of the nearby creek from the favella developing next to it.

Fuck. My town is turning into Brazil.
posted by happyroach at 8:33 PM on July 29, 2013

Sunnyvale's water is mostly from Hetch Hetchey via SF's water district with some from the San Jose water district which comes from also far away. Sunnyvale's water is actually pristine.
posted by GuyZero at 9:59 PM on July 29, 2013

happyroach: Well, in a way it is. I suspect distilling your water at home would be a lot cheaper in the long run, even if the glass for it would be an initial expense. I don't know what type of contamination you have there, but if it is heavy metals, that is really easy to remove, while contaminants might be more tricky.

This would involve boiling the water, and thus kill any bacteria. A pain, and something that shouldn't be needed, but a lot cheaper and better for the environment then bottled water.

Disclaimer: While I am a chemist, I don't do environmental or human chemistry, and this is general ideas I'm spouting, not something I've researched. Follow health guidlines before drinking any water you think is contaminated.
posted by Canageek at 10:01 PM on July 29, 2013

Happyroach - the bottled water stores are for people who live in trailers without water hookups. The valley has trailer parks hidden away all over the place. The tap water in Silicon Valley is pristine.
posted by w0mbat at 8:50 AM on July 31, 2013

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