When you think of Silicon Valley, you probably think of computers, coders, and the birth of technology culture under the California sun. But alongside high tech businesses and the accompanying high paid salaries, Silicon Valley has one of the highest concentrations of toxic waste sites in the US.

The Silicon Valley area (which is just one small part of the state of California) contains 29 sites designated as Superfund sites by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). A Superfund site is defined as a contaminated site designated as a candidate for cleanup because it poses a risk to human health and/or the environment (cleanup being paid for by the Superfund created by the U.S. Congress). By comparison, the entire state of Oklahoma has eight Superfund sites (as of 2010). To understand how this all came to pass, you need to take a trip back to the origins of Silicon Valley.

Where it all began

While a great deal of modern electronics are currently manufactured in places like Taiwan, China, and South Korea, these manufacturing processes were first developed in the Silicon Valley area. The growth of the tech industry in this area started in the 1950’s, and lasted for much of the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s.

Since 2001 however, the Valley lost approximately 93,000 jobs to overseas tech manufacturing companies. High wages and real estate costs contributed to the outsourcing trend, and although Silicon Valley was a high tech manufacturing centre in its formative years, the area is mostly known now as a haven for software developers and venture capitalists.

People who might look like this
People who might look like this. Photo: Unsplash

Enter the darker legacy of the Valley

The environmental challenges that Silicon Valley now faces go back to those early days of manufacturing. There are several toxic chemicals involved in the production of computer hardware, but we are going to look at a single chemical involved in the process of fabricating microchips: an industrial solvent called trichloroethylene (or TCE for short).

In the early days of Silicon Valley, there were few, if any regulations regarding the use, storage, and disposal of chemicals such as TCE. At the time, it also wasn’t known how toxic the chemicals like TCE actually were (TCE was only officially classified as a known carcinogen in 2005 and has also been linked to birth defects).

We should state that this isn’t a story of deliberate corporate neglect. TCE has served a number of uses in several industries, including as a surgical anesthetic that was thought to be safer than chloroform. In the dawn of TCE use, chemists were unaware of its impact and the contamination potential of TCE.

Silicon crystal being grown by Czochralski process at Raytheon, 1956. Photo: Public domain / wikimedia.org
Silicon crystal being grown by Czochralski process at Raytheon, 1956. Photo: Public domain / wikimedia.org

This ignorance and lack of oversight has had some serious and long lasting impacts. Underground storage tanks weren’t regulated for a long period of time, leading to some unfortunate, but unsurprising consequences. A 1985 survey of underground solvent tanks found leaks at 75 out of 96 sites. The problems weren’t just with underground storage tanks though, according to Amanda Hawes, a worker’s rights attorney in Silicon Valley: “I think it wasn’t unheard of for stuff to be literally poured out the back door.”

Even companies that used disposal techniques that were considered state of the art at the time often had their own issues with toxicity from relatively small spills and leaks on site. We now know just how dangerous and difficult to contain some of these solvents and other chemicals can be. Chemicals like TCE can easily make their way into groundwater, potentially causing problems in much larger areas.

Superfund Sites

Real estate in the Valley has been booming. Property comes at a premium price, and although the original tenants might be gone (many of the early companies from Silicon Valley no longer exist), there are a number of buildings on or near Superfund sites that still get used. This leads to new potential issues, such as in 2013 when some Google employees at a satellite campus were potentially exposed to harmful quantities of TCE because they were occupying leased buildings on a Superfund site. Stricter environmental laws continue to evolve, ensuring the safety of workers in existing buildings, even as the cleanup continues.

So it’s business as usual – people are living in these communities, working and playing; companies continue to grow, all the while a massive cleanup effort is occurring literally below the surface. From the mid 1980s through 2008, over 200 million gallons of ground water have been pumped out and treated. Other efforts involve treating the pollution directly in the ground using microbes that can break down chemicals like TCE (a process known as bioremediation).

While progress has been made, the work is far from done. Even when these Superfund sites have been decontaminated, there are hundreds of additional polluted sites not on the National Priorities List in the Santa Clara area alone. Tech companies in the valley have spent hundred of millions of dollars of their own money cleaning up sites, and the government is also working to deal with polluted areas through the efforts of organizations like the EPA. Even with all the money and effort devoted to cleaning up the remnants of early Silicon Valley, there are many years left to go (some estimates say as much as 700 years are required for a full recovery).

Superfund site
Former Superfund site, now a shopping center at 101 Bernal Road, San Jose, CA. Photo: Jill Siegrist

There is a lesson to be learned. Technology advances faster than our understanding of how innovations impact the world around us. It might be impossible to imagine a world without the computers that were first created in Silicon Valley, but their creation came at a cost. As technology continues to advance, perhaps the lesson is to focus not only on what we want to create, but how we create it.