Local company's toxic plume map causes alarm

Chemicals under Googleplex is much smaller than thought

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 called WhatsDown 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 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 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. The site 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.


Like this comment
Posted by Oh, i see what you did there
a resident of Old Mountain View
on May 22, 2014 at 9:06 am

Fascinating that the guy who it touting and SELLING air testing kits would put out a map of exaggerated contamination areas.
I may buy an air test kit one day but never from this guy.

Next up, an umbrella company is forecasting torrents of rain this season. Better get prepared!

Like this comment
Posted by Pluot
a resident of Rex Manor
on May 22, 2014 at 9:28 am

It was a mistake using the color purple to highlight these toxic plumes because I just think they're toxic plums and then I'm hungry.

Like this comment
Posted by Steven A.
a resident of Shoreline West
on May 22, 2014 at 11:09 am

Toxic fumes. Bah. It's not like that could actually hurt anyone. Okay, yeah birth defects, but what else? Cancer, so what? We're young ... who cares?

Like this comment
Posted by Well, actually
a resident of Bailey Park
on May 22, 2014 at 11:47 am

Steven, nobody is arguing toxicity for areas affected, the point is that there simply aren't as many of these toxic areas affected as reported by the guy selling air test equipment. (shocker)

The story is about some of the first reported hot spots are exaggerations and not hot spots at all.
If the toxic fumes ARE NOT THERE, then indeed, there is no reason to worry.

Like this comment
Posted by Bob Wenzlau
a resident of another community
on May 22, 2014 at 12:19 pm

To "Oh, i see what you did there",

The comment about being the umbrella manufacturer that forecasts torrents of rains hit hard. Ouch.

We are trying to make accurate forecasts of plumes - very hard. The government agencies did not do this, so we took on the effort. We asked the agencies to engage with trying to make better maps, but it was only after we published the maps that the engagement occurred. As we get their comments, we adjust the map. There is more work to do, and we are engaging with the agencies as to protocols.

Selling umbrellas. There are two aspects of this.

First, how do you monetize an effort to show environmental information to the public. The content development is laborious. We have had the maps made by interns from Palo Alto High School and Stanford. I have to pay them. Hence I need to make some income. Why not umbrellas.

Second, umbrellas protect you from rain, and being able to test can give you comfort that the air in your home is not impacted. We are hoping to do collaborative testing with the government agencies. With this a person over the plume could know whether the chemicals are occurring in there home. We make some money, and can improve the map and improve the coverage.

I would be happy to let you use one of the devices, just reach out to me. We want to be able to learn from the experience. If you look at our blog, you will see that we are very serious about making a helpful contribution.


Like this comment
Posted by Alex Edholm
a resident of another community
on May 22, 2014 at 1:54 pm

What he said.

Like this comment
Posted by Env Scientist
a resident of another community
on May 22, 2014 at 5:49 pm

I am an environmental consultant working on these plumes for one of the responsible parties. I can tell you the responsible parties are very serious about protecting human health and cleaning up these plumes and reducing exposure to these chemicals. They spend millions of dollars doing so. The spills occurred many decades ago, in most cases, and at the time it wasn't known what the impacts were to the environment. These issues are very difficult and expensive to clean up. It is also important to note that the chemicals previously leaked into the ground and now, in some cases, are intruding into indoor air are legal chemicals that are present in many building materials and consumer and cleaning products. Background levels of these contaminants exist in homes and buildings were there are no contaminants in the ground. The issue is very serious and I believe the right people are focusing on it.

Like this comment
Posted by Old Ben
a resident of Bailey Park
on May 23, 2014 at 6:08 am

All asides aside, I think it is very good news that the apparent dangerous level of contamination thought to be in many areas, is actually not present in many of those areas.

2 people like this
Posted by casey
a resident of another community
on May 23, 2014 at 11:52 am

He may be selling a DIY air test kit, but that is far from obvious. I couldn't find any mention of the kit on the mapping app or his website.

Like this comment
Posted by DC
a resident of North Whisman
on May 24, 2014 at 10:12 pm

Easy to find the data and map? like on the internet cause everything on the internet is has to be......

Like this comment
Posted by Kellie Huston
a resident of another community
on May 27, 2014 at 1:30 pm

Bob Wenzalau,

I would certainly be interested in seeing the vapor intrusion (if any) from these low level concentrations in groundwater. I am in the homebuilding industry. Obviously this could be a major consideration if there are vapor intrusion impacts from these "non-regulated" plumes. Thanks much!

Like this comment
Posted by Geoguy
a resident of another community
on May 29, 2014 at 9:27 am

Mapping of groundwater plumes is not a simple task and should not be taken lightly. I know since this is my profession and I have been doing i?t for decades. The idea of using high school students do this work is absurd. Whats next, hiring high school students to do brain surgery, designing advanced car safety systems or railroad tankers for transporting heavy crude across the country?

Like this comment
Posted by Back In NYC
a resident of another community
on Jun 2, 2014 at 1:43 pm

LOL, you people are paying for contaminated real estate. Mountain View is a toxic dump and a moral cesspool. Having spent eight years in your ghastly little town, I can say that it is unquestionably the worst place I have ever lived. It'll be amusing to watch it circle the drain, from a distance.

Like this comment
Posted by Old Ben
a resident of Bailey Park
on Jun 2, 2014 at 2:01 pm

And you have obviously moved on with your life since you came back here just to trow rocks.
You must really be living the dream. You seem really happy.

Like this comment
Posted by Not for everyone
a resident of Bailey Park
on Jun 2, 2014 at 2:07 pm

Please read Back In NYC's post.
If you think you might be the kind of person he is, MV is definitely NOT the town for you. You will hate it here, just as he did. If you think you might be a different kind of person, I'm sure you'll find MV very attractive, just as so many others do as they fight over the scant few houses available.
Remember, if you think like Back In NYC, MV and you are a total mismatch, but if you think differently, I bet you'll love it here.
Its really all about different tastes.

Like this comment
Posted by Back In NYC
a resident of another community
on Jun 2, 2014 at 4:31 pm

How many Toxic Superfund sites are in your overpriced little town? Do you even know? You're paying extravagant amounts of money for that TCE contaminated dirt you live on. As the Pope says in Ken Russell's delightful family film, THE DEVILS, "Have fun!"

Like this comment
Posted by Back In NYC
a resident of another community
on Jun 2, 2014 at 11:35 pm

Your precious computer industry is toxic as hell. That's why they shipped the manufacturing to China. It ain't just toxic, it is also as racist as the day is long. I truly hate you all, and I am REALLY going to enjoy watching Mountain View die from here. That's why I'm here, on this stupid awful website celebrating your wretched little town. It's as amusing as watching a fly drown in a pot of glue.

It's a NYC thing called "schadenfreude." Look it up. Google it. You wouldn't understand it. Californians in general are stupid and narcissistic, and Silicon Valley is the very ugliest part of California.

Like this comment
Posted by Back In NYC
a resident of another community
on Jun 2, 2014 at 11:47 pm

To be perfectly honest, they shipped the manufacturing to China because slaves were cheaper in China then. The tech industry loves slavery. But the serious pollution involved in computer manufacturing was shunted onto a country that doesn't give a damn about the environment not only because Chinese slavery appeals, it was also done because computer manufacturing is FILTHY from a measured and examined environmental standpoint. The computer industry is utterly toxic.

And you halfwits think that riding a bicycle to work will somehow ameliorate that. And you fret about cigarette smoke. I'm REALLY going to enjoy watching you die.

Like this comment
Posted by Homesick Old Ben
a resident of Bailey Park
on Jun 3, 2014 at 6:40 am

I'm just glad you guys are still around. I know i can be curt at times, but as you can tell, even in NY, I still crave the discussions about MV. I cannot move on because in my heart I know I never left. That's why I cannot stop coming back. I simply love this town too much.

Like this comment
Posted by Dr Evaluation
a resident of Bailey Park
on Jun 3, 2014 at 6:44 am

"I'm REALLY going to enjoy watching you die."
You're obviously winning. Look how happy and well adjusted you have become.
These are the kinds of things happy and well adjusted people say all the time.
You must be inundated with party invites!

Like this comment
Posted by Neighbor
a resident of another community
on Jun 8, 2014 at 1:09 pm

@ back in NYC

I agree with what you say, How ever, I am also glad that you are back in NYC.

Like this comment
Posted by Back in NYC
a resident of another community
on Jun 9, 2014 at 7:02 am

Yes, MV is like any other larger city with its challenges, but its also such an amazing place surrounded by even more amazing places, that its nearly impossible to try and find a negative to complain about unless I really try hard. Sometimes I do try and succeed, but for right now I'm just feeling the love. Have a great week MV!

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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