Mountain View Voice

Opinion - March 15, 2013

TCE drops in on new neighborhood

Already overwhelmed by the discovery of more locations where the toxic chemical TCE has seeped into the underground water table, the EPA is now facing another challenge — how to find funding to test these new vapor leaks.

For example, some homeowners are worried after learning that the Environmental Protection Agency has no money to pay for sampling the air inside their homes, even though the chemical was found in street tests along Evandale Avenue and all the way west to Easy Street and Leong Drive. Tests by the EPA in 2005 west of Moffett Boulevard also found concentrations there that far exceeded 5 parts per billion, the level considered safe for air inside a home.

When the main TCE plume was discovered between N. Whisman Road, Ellis Street and E. Middlefield Road, the area was part of a Superfund site and it was clear that certain high-tech companies, including Fairchild and Intel, had a hand in causing the pollution and have agreed to pay for the ongoing clean-up.

But when the vapors were found in significant new concentrations where Evandale intersects with Leong Drive, outside of the MEW area, it is not clear what company is responsible for the pollution, and consequently there is no immediate source of funding to pay for the EPA to sample indoor air in these homes.

Without more tests, these homeowners are faced with a terrible choice — whether to risk living in a home that could contain a dangerous, toxic chemical — or make the difficult decision to move out of the neighborhood.

It is decisions like these that make coping with TCE such a difficult challenge, especially when the odorless and colorless gas is underground and must either be blocked from entering basements and crawl spaces by an approved vapor barrier, or vented from inside homes where unsafe concentrations are found.

The EPA is in charge of drilling test wells to track the movement of the gas underground, and for designing and installing devices to ventilate indoor spaces so residents can live without the fear of breathing toxic air. But when the EPA has no funding to help residents cope with newly discovered concentrations of toxic air, the system breaks down.

At a public meeting last week to explain the implications of TCE to residents whose homes may be affected, the EPA's Penny Reddy said, "We are actively searching for responsible parties in this area," (The Wagon Wheel neighborhood) to fund clean-up and indoor air testing. But Lenny Siegel, of the Mountain View Center for Environmental Oversight, said it was unlikely that a polluter would be found with "deep enough pockets" to help pay for the work.

At the same time, Siegel attempted to alleviate fears from some in the crowd of 100-plus residents about TCE.

"They tested 30 homes and only came up with two. Even if they find something, they can install a system that protects you," Siegel said.

EPA officials said they would be going door to door soon to hand out a new fact sheet that describes the dangers of TCE. Meanwhile, newcomers who intend to live in these neighborhoods should make sure they know whether a home has been tested or not. In some cases that information could be buried in the disclosure language of a purchase contract or a residential lease.

As residents of these impacted areas look around for help, it is clear that only the EPA has the tools to cope with TCE. And if the threat continues, and no polluter can be found to underwrite the clean-up costs, it will be time for the federal government to step in, perhaps with the help of Sens. Dianne Feinstein, Barbara Boxer and Congresswoman Anna Eshoo.

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