Mountain View Voice

News - May 23, 2014

Local company's toxic plume map causes alarm

Chemicals under Googleplex is much smaller than thought

by Daniel DeBolt and Gennady Sheyner

Palo Alto resident Bob Wenzlau has taken on the task of mapping the various toxic plumes in Mountain View and surrounding cities, which has caused some alarm among Mountain View residents and employees.

The murky and complex topic of groundwater contamination has been a hot one in cities like Palo Alto and Mountain View, where contamination has been found under former computer chip manufacturer sites around North Whisman Road and a few other sites. The typical pollutant is trichloroethylene (TCE), a once-popular industrial solvent that has been deemed a carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency. The vapors are known to rise from the ground and become trapped in buildings, causing a risk for birth defects from short term exposures and numerous health problems from long-term exposures.

Information about specific Silicon Valley toxic sites isn't easy for a layman to find. Data about these underground contaminants are dispersed throughout many different databases, 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. In Mountain View, toxic site cleanup oversight is divided among the EPA, the state's Water Board and Department of Toxic Substances Control. The latter two have engaged the public very little in their cleanups.

Wenzlau is known as the pioneer of Palo Alto's curbside recycling program and is a leading advocate for a new compost facility, but in recent months he and his company, 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.

In the first days of its existence, some who saw Wenzlau's map were surprised. In particular, a large toxic TCE plume is shown under Google headquarters at and around 1600 Amphitheatre Parkway, but no contamination levels are shown to help assess possible vapor intrusion dangers. After clicking on links to government .PDF records for the Teledyne Semiconductor toxic site, some prodigious digging found that only trace amounts of TCE groundwater contamination is now found north of Highway 101 under the Googleplex.

Mountain View residents have become accustomed to the EPA practice of marking toxic plumes only when the contamination exceeds the five-parts-per-billion drinking water limit. The amounts found under the Googleplex fall well short of that. After his method for outlining plumes was questioned by the Voice, Wenzlau said he was looking at a possible correction. He also suggested that indoor air testing was the only way for people to be sure about health risks, and recommends a DIY air test kit he sells on his site.

The application, known as CleanDeck 2.0, 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. It 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 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 Voice's sister paper, the Palo Alto 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. These plumes 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 the 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. At the same time, Wenzlau 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.

Wenzlau's map can be found at whatsdown.terradex.com

Email Daniel DeBolt at ddebolt@mv-voice.com and Gennady Sheyner at gsheyner@paweekly.com

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