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Issue date: January 26, 2001

Cleaning up the mess at Middlefield-Ellis-Whisman Cleaning up the mess at Middlefield-Ellis-Whisman (January 26, 2001)

It is one of Silicon Valley's worst Superfund sites. It involves more pollutants, more polluters, and more agencies than any other.

And despite the mesh of jurisdictions designed to contain it, it has dropped off the public's radar and fallen through the regulatory cracks.

Once a constant presence in the public eye, the Middlefield-Ellis-Whisman site has quietly subsided into a morass of regulatory confusion. Anyone looking for proof need only start with the operation of an air-stripper at 369 N. Whisman Rd., which sucks contaminated water out of the ground and sends evaporated chemicals into the air just a stone's throw from one of Netscape's buildings.

The company that operates the tower says it releases about 1.2 pounds of chemicals per day. However, because the amount falls below the official amount of 24 pounds per day -- an amount grandfathered in long ago by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District -- the operator is exempt from outside monitoring.

Further investigation shows that the air quality district has never had a comprehensive plan for the MEW site. It set the 24-pound limit without factoring in the emissions from other air-strippers nearby. Nor has it ever considered the health effects on the neighborhood's population, which has grown significantly since the last semiconductor plants were bulldozed in the early 1990s. As of last week, the agency wasn't even aware that it had ever issued a permit for the air-stripper, or indeed that it has the authority to issue permits for Superfund sites.

While the details of how this state of affairs arose are convoluted, the broad outlines are simple enough. Under the eye of a nascent and remote EPA, the dozen or so polluting companies delayed the MEW cleanup by at least four years in the early 1980s as they tried to escape responsibility by pinning it on each other. When the cleanup finally did begin, turnover and understaffing in the state agencies involved made certain that there would be no continuity in the government's efforts to monitor the progress of the cleanup.

Meanwhile, the public went away, assuming that the remedial plan agreed to by the companies and the EPA in 1989 would be adequate to the task of the cleanup.

The agencies' failure even to keep an eye on the site, let alone stay abreast of new developments, shows how wrong that assumption was.

If there's any lesson here, it's that Mountain View needs to stand up and holler again -- at both the companies and the agencies who have let the site slide.

The outstanding fact in the matter is that the cleanup occurred only because of public outcry over the delays in the 1980s. Alarmed that the underground plume of toxins from the site was creeping toward a city aquifer, the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition and citizens' groups demanded action from the Mountain View City Council, which in turn roused the EPA to exercise its jurisdiction over the site.

The public must once again use its leverage to get the mess attended to.

It should begin by insisting that the Bay Area Air Quality Management District examine all its assumptions about emissions from the site and appoint an independent monitor to measure the pollution it creates in the vicinity. Giving the polluters sole responsibility for measuring their emissions is tantamount to no regulation at all.

The public should also demand that the responsible companies obey the spirit of the law by installing a carbon filtration system in the air-stripper. This device, which would capture the pollutants that now percolate into the air, would cost perhaps a few hundred thousand dollars -- chump change to the companies, which include Intel, Raytheon, NEC, and Union Carbide, to name a few.

Finally, just as they did in 1985, Mountain View residents should enlist the help of the city council in making sure that the public receives regular, full reports of progress at the site.

None of these measures should be necessary. However, the companies' unwillingness to take the lead in keeping the cleanup on track, and the agencies' seeming inability to force them to do so, leaves residents no choice but to force the issue themselves. 


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