Publication Date: Friday, May 09, 2003
(May 09, 2003) Six years ago, Whisman Station was Mountain View's shining example of urban redevelopment. That was before the EPA announced toxic gas was entering some homes.
By Tamar Lando
In 1997, with the dot-coms in their infancy and Mountain View in a housing crisis, dozens of middle class professionals were scrambling to buy the new homes at Whisman Station, where townhouses started at $350,000. Many camped outside the selling agent's office on the night before houses went on sale, lured by reasonable prices in a development that straddles the light rail line, a stone's throw from some of Mountain View's biggest tech companies.
No one imagined then that six years later the economy would be in shambles, the unemployment rate soaring, and Whisman Station's 503 homes the first subjects of a nationwide investigation into the dangers of trichloroethene (TCE), a cancer-causing solvent.
Scientists are quick to remind people that toxins like TCE never really go away. Yet even the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) seemed surprised to find that TCE 25 feet underground was entering a handful of Whisman homes. While EPA investigates whether residents' health is at risk, GTE -- the defense contractor and telecommunications giant that polluted the site -- is blaming the site's developers for indoor toxic exposure.
"The 64 thousand dollar question is whether it's safe to continue to live on this site and whether more should be done to protect the residents," said Ted Smith, director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. Smith has been speaking publicly about the dangers of TCE moving into houses since the early 1990s. While EPA officials say there is no immediate risk to residents, they are still working to answer Smith's question.
The Mountain View City Council approved the site for housing after two health risk studies predicted that TCE would not enter homes at levels dangerous residents. But it was not until April 2000 -- three years after people moved into the site -- that EPA began indoor testing. TCE was found in five out of the seven homes initially targeted; at one home, TCE levels were considered potentially dangerous by EPA.
In a new push to reevaluate the site, EPA is conducting further indoor tests over the next few months, and will later sample soil and outdoor air.
The investigation was prompted by EPA findings that TCE is 65 times more dangerous than previously thought, and can enter homes -- even those built atop concrete slabs -- more easily than suspected. Furthermore, the computer program that EPA used for years to predict indoor exposure has proven inaccurate.
Overall, Whisman residents don't seem alarmed by the contamination. Their reactions are mixed: while some are most concerned about their health, others worry that contamination -- and publicity around it -- might reduce the value of their homes, which has risen considerably since 1997 (single-family homes go for as high as $700,000).
Before buying their homes, Whisman station residents signed a disclosure statement outlining underground contamination. It did not mention the risk of vapors entering homes.
Resident Gloria Nogales said her real estate agent told her not to worry about it, that there were lots of contaminated sites in Mountain View.
"What can I do now?" she said. "I'm kind of trapped." But Nogales said she might still have chosen to live at Whisman Station had she known what she knows today.
As they weigh the multiple concerns raised by the chemical, government officials say that Whisman Station is just the first in a massive reevaluation of the country's polluted sites.
A "ubiquitous" danger
TCE was a chemical that, by the mid-1950s, had found its way into a multitude of industrial uses. It is now present at more than half the nation's 1,499 Superfund sites, EPA officials say TCE is "ubiquitous." In addition to cancer, it can cause damage to the nervous system, liver and lungs (see sidebar). While acute exposure to large amounts of the chemical can cause health problems, the risk at Whisman station is not immediate; EPA is trying to assess the effects of low-level exposure over 30 years.
EPA's Region IX -- which includes California -- is the first in the country to act on the new guidelines for TCE. Those guidelines are not yet official, and there is still a chance that they will be further revised, said Patrick Wilson, the EPA toxicologist for the site.
While other regions have acknowledged the guidelines, none has acted on them.
About three months ago the EPA began reevaluating TCE sites in Region IX, which covers much of the West, as well as Guam. As more regions move to do the same, investigations similar to the one planned for Whisman Station are likely to crop up.
"We're ahead of the nation in many respects in doing this," Wilson said.
How it happened
It was known since at least 1988 that TCE contaminated the groundwater beneath the former GTE site. From 1952 to 1983, GTE facilities used it to manufacture electronic and communication equipment for the military.
In the late 1990s, three housing developments -- California Station, Whisman Park, and Town Square, collectively called Whisman Station -- were built on top of the 60-acre site bounded by Whisman Road, Middlefield Road, Central Expressway and Highway 237.
There were multiple incentives to develop housing on the former industrial property. After failing -- despite a two-year effort -- to sell the land for industrial or commercial uses and eager to get a good price for its property, GTE decided to look to residential developers.
"The reason for this is that they could get more money for their land -- the land is probably worth more as high density residential," said Peter Strauss, an environmental scientist who has helped with citizen oversight efforts in an around Mountain View.
This was good news for city planners, who were aiming to offset the city's jobs-housing imbalance by finding commercial sites that could be rezoned for homes. GTE's property seemed ideal for transit-oriented housing because of its proximity to the light-rail tracks, and was large enough to house two city parks.
Furthermore, it was not a Superfund site like other nearby areas considered for housing but eventually zoned for commercial use.
The city approved the construction of Whisman Station without special safety requirements on the design of homes, according to Christopher Kober, who heads the Castle Group, which acquired and developed 22 acres of the former GTE property in 1995. "There was no requirement ... or recommendation from any of the government agencies," said Kober.
This omission has been criticized by GTE.
In a dispute that erupted between polluters and developers, each side is claiming the other is financially responsible.
Under federal policy, GTE, as the polluter, is required to pay for cleanup of the site. But in recent weeks, GTE has pinned the responsibility on the developers -- at least, that is, when it comes to contamination issues inside homes.
"The developers could have decided not to build homes. If they decided to go ahead, they could have addressed the safety issues by building more effective vapor barriers or mitigation systems," said Sharon Cohen-Hagar, a GTE spokesperson.
These accusations come in spite of the fact that GTE, alongside the developers, petitioned the city in 1994 to rezone the site for residential; in fact, according to Kober, the sale of the site was contingent on the city's approval of building plans. GTE, Kober added, participated in every step of the planning process, including 20-plus city meetings.
In an initial phone conversation, Kober denied that the developers are at fault. But in an interview last week at his San Mateo office, Kober would not speak about any legal agreements with GTE on who is liable for toxic exposure.
He did say that, while the GTE site's redevelopment was much discussed by city officials, the opposition of a small group of residents to high-density housing -- and not toxic contamination -- was the main concern.
TCE "is prevalent in maybe half the Silicon Valley land, so it's a continuous issue" for housing developers, he said. His bigger concern in developing the site was that, although it was zoned to accommodate about 1,000 homes, the city only allowed about 550 to be developed.
Precautions, past and future
TCE contamination at Whisman Station is similar in many respects to other Mountain View sites handled under the federal Superfund law, which is aimed at cleaning up the nation's most troublesome polluted areas. But due to legal technicalities, GTE was handled under a lower profile law (see sidebar), and slipped under the radar of local environmental groups.
Under EPA orders, GTE removed contaminated soil and in 1995 installed a system that removes TCE from the ground and releases it into the air. EPA, along with developers, was confident that subsurface contamination would not reach homes.
In the past several years, however, the EPA became convinced otherwise.
Studies conducted in Colorado in 1997-1998 revealed that vapor intrusion -- toxic chemicals evaporating from the ground and into homes -- was possible even in situations where relatively small amounts of toxins lay deep below the ground. This led the EPA to test indoor air at the Mountain View site for the first time in the spring of 2000.
But some environmentalists say this was far too late. Smith, of the Toxics Coalition, asked why information that was "out there" wasn't shared.
"There's no question that similar phenomena were identified and there was some confirmation that this was happening" before Whisman Station was built, Smith said.
Although the first round of testing found TCE in five out of seven targeted homes, it was only in the fall of 2002, after the discovery of TCE's increased danger, that EPA required something be done.
Under EPA orders, GTE installed an air depressurization system at one home where indoor concentrations were -- according to the new guidelines -- unhealthy. Since January, concentrations in that home have been reduced by more than 90 percent.
In the most recent development, the Castle group is getting ready to build 46 additional housing units on the former GTE site, now under review for approval. Asked whether the developers planned to take additional safety measures in light of evidence of TCE's presence in indoor air elsewhere on the site, Kober said no. Homes, he said, will be constructed as before.
E-mail Tamar Lando at email@example.com