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February 25, 2005

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Publication Date: Friday, February 25, 2005

Whisman homes safe, residents agree Whisman homes safe, residents agree (February 25, 2005)

Neighbors still want cleanup of toxic water, soil

By Jon Wiener

Results from a large-scale search for toxic pollution at Whisman Station indicate that residents are safe for the time being. But neighborhood activists are still concerned about the pollution in the ground water and soil beneath 503 townhouses at the site.

"It seems like we have a clean bill of health," said Ed Schlosser, a resident of the neighborhood and a board member of the Northeast Mountain View Advisory Council, adding that the continued presence of trichloroethylene (TCE) contamination below the surface remains an issue of concern.

He was responding to the news that TCE, a solvent that has blamed for increased rates of cancer and other neurological problems, appears not to be present at dangerously high levels in the air at Whisman Station.

With hundreds of people, including one of Schlosser's fellow board members, attending a school board meeting to fight the proposed closure of Slater Elementary, the Feb. 16 gathering of the citizens group's meeting, being held at Slater, did not draw enough audience members for a quorum.

Those present supported Schlosser's resolution, saying that the buildings were currently safe but will remain at risk until the contamination is removed. However the meeting's sparse attendance meant it could not be formalized until next month.

"We owe it to our neighbors to make that statement," agreed board member Lenny Siegel.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) scientists have found one Whisman home that suffers from what it calls vapor intrusion, a process by which contamination in ground water evaporates into the soil above it and eventually seeps into buildings.

The home in question could be located over a "hot spot" where a large number of chemicals were spilled, officials said, or it could have a crack in its foundation. The concern about the latter possibility is the prospect that as the buildings age, they will develop cracks and become susceptible to vapor intrusion.

Council board member and Whisman Station resident Mark Underwood said that an earthquake that causes more cracks could pose a threat and stressed that the concrete "vapor barriers" built underneath the houses, some older than five years, are not designed to last more than a decade.

Shortly after the site was redeveloped in the late 1990s as a prize-winning complex that features a glistening new light rail station, concerns arose that dangerous levels of toxic gas were seeping into homes there.

A broad investigation began after the EPA announced that TCE was 65 times more toxic than previously thought. Though Mountain View residents continue to look to that higher estimate, intended to account for the chemical's impacts on children and the elderly, it was never officially accepted as a legal standard. A federal committee is currently reviewing the science behind it.

GTE, which built electronics equipment at the site during the last half of the 20th century, has been voluntarily paying for the investigation and cleanup. The Texas-based company, now owned by Verizon, would not disclose how much it has spent so far.

Steve Hochstadt, a former GTE environmental manager and a council board member, said at the meeting that it is time to start looking at more advanced clean-up technologies. The current system of "pump-and-treat," which consists of pumping out contaminated ground water, running it through carbon filters, then releasing it into Stevens Creek, tends to decline in effectiveness after a few years.

Alternative technologies, one of which residents and officials expect GTE to propose later this year, include injecting bacteria into the ground water to eat the chemicals. The city of Mountain View is currently reviewing the results of the investigation and will be making formal comments next month.

E-mail Jon Wiener at [email protected]

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