Site #1: Advanced Micro Devices, 901 Thompson Place, Sunnyvale, CA 94086
The drive to Advanced Micro Devices, inc. is 14.1 miles from my house. 25 minutes if I leave in the middle of the day, a straight shot from 680 to 101 to Lawrence expressway. On a scale of 1-100 (1 being the worst and 100 being the best), the National Air Toxics Assessment considers the air quality of 94085, the Sunnyvale Zip code where AMD was located, a 51. The air around my house is at 61. I bring my mask with me.
I learn quickly that I am not particularly familiar with Sunnyvale. Save for a short stint at 17, when I dated a guitarist for a metal band who grew up here, I have spent almost no time in this tree lined city where author Amy Tan apparently went to high school. On a webpage for a local property management company I learn that one of the only land grants to go to an Ohlone person in the south bay was granted to Lupe Yñigo and covered a vast chunk of what we now refer to as Sunnyvale, including the Sunnyvale portion of Moffett Field. I also learn that Sunnyvale is one of the only U.S cities to have a “single unified Department of Public Safety.” In Sunnyvale, all DPS personnel are trained as firefighters, police officers, and EMTs, so they can, “respond to an emergency in any of these three roles.” Which also means, no matter who you call, you’re getting a cop.
Driving to 901 Thompson Place, the streets look wealthy to me, which is hard to explain. There are big, leafy trees that, if I had to guess, are some kind of oak. Despite the perpetual summer, the grass here is green and well-watered. There are columnar red maple trees and pepper bark trees, manicured ivy and juniper bushes without trash shoved between their leaves.
The street is eerily quiet. My phone navigation takes us directly to what looks like the back end of a Public Storage facility, which I can only glean from the orange, yellow, and purple stripes lining the rooftop. A few cars drive by, all electric and near silent. There is no signage. No hints or declarations of pollution. Just a quiet, tree lined street with small, unfamous tech companies lining the sidewalks.
A handful of techies leave one nondescript building, laugh and chatter as they walk down the street. There is possibly more nature surrounding this particular Public Storage than any other I’ve come into contact with. The building itself is massive, one side is littered with seemingly-arbitrary inlaid silver cubes. They look like a metallic rash and are iridescent in the same way an oil puddle is.
As I try to find my way around, I accidentally find myself in a miniature forest. A handful of orange cones have been strewn next to two fenced off areas with large metal contraptions laying protected inside. I pause to ask myself if I can breathe here. It is allergy and peak asthma season for me, but I decide that I feel “regular sick” and not “special sick” and continue on.
I make my way around the facility and a few cars come and go, I begin to wonder if a “helpful white man” will come and ask if I need help, have questions, or inquire as to what I’m doing. He never comes. My partner and I get back in the car and begin the 3-minute drive to the second location of Advanced Micro Devices.
Low and behold, there’s another Public Storage.
Site #1.5: Advanced Micro Devices, 915 DeGuine Avenue, Sunnyvale, CA 94085
The former Advanced Micro Devices locations, TRW Microwave, and Phillips Semiconductors (also known as Signetics, inc.) makeup what the Environmental Protection Agency has dubbed “The triple site.” AMD was founded almost exactly 50 years ago on May 1st of 1969 by former, frustrated Fairchild Semiconductor employees in Santa Clara. In 1973, after securing a more permanent location on former agricultural land, AMD moved to Sunnyvale.
All of the pollution caused by AMD took place during the time they manufactured computer processors. When AMD opened in Sunnyvale, they installed three underground acid neutralization tanks to house waste solvents (by products of the manufacturing process). In 1981 the company identified high levels of VOCs (volatile organic compounds – basically the horrible-for-you-and-the-earth-shit used in the stuff that strips paint, plates metal, degreases machinery, and dry cleans your clothes) in the soil underfoot. To make a long, complicated story short: they put poison in the tanks, then the tanks leaked.
In 1982 AMD removed 5,600 cubic yards of contaminated soil and the three-tank underground acid neutralization system that had a combined capacity of more than 4500 gallons .Cleanup crews shipped contaminated dirt to a hazardous waste facility and, between 1982 and 1985, 9 water extraction wells and pumps were installed to stop the migration of contaminants from moving “off site.” In 1991 AMD finished investigating the type and extent of contamination of the sites, and the EPA chose to continue to extract and treat surrounding groundwater. The EPA put the site on the Superfund program’s National Priorities List in 1990.
Most of the pollutants are under the categories of carcinogens, neurotoxic chemicals, endocrine disruptors, and VOC’s such as dichloroethane, tetrachloroethene, freon, vinyl chloride, and dichlorobenzene.:
- Dichloroethane is both used as a solvent and is often added to leaded gasoline to remove lead. It is a carcinogen that affects the liver, urinary tract, and kidneys. Tetrachloroethene can be found in consumer products such as; water repellants, wood cleaners, glues, and spot removers.
- Tetrachloroethene affects the central nervous system, including the liver, kidneys, blood, immune systems, and potentially the reproductive system (depending on length and amount of exposure). Long term exposure (which has been tested by tracking the health of folks who work at dry cleaners) causes liver and kidney damage, reduced red blood cells, and several types of cancer, specifically non-Hodgkin lymphoma and multiple myeloma.
- Freon, also known as fluorinated hydrocarbons, is most commonly found in air conditioning. Its odorless, tasteless, and exposure can cause headaches, frostbite, vomiting, respiratory issues, and seizures. Long term exposure can cause fluid build up in the lungs, organ damage, and death.
- Vinyl chloride is used primarily to make polyvinyl chloride (PVC) which is used in the production of a variety of plastic products, including pipes, wire and cable coating, and packaging materials. It is also one of the components of tabaco smoke. Most folks come into contact with vinyl chloride through inhalation, and long term exposure can cause a rare form of liver cancer (hepatic angiosarcoma), as well as brain and lung cancers, lymphoma, and leukemia.
- Dichlorobenzene is used most typically to control moths, mold, and mildew. Ever seen a urinal cake? That’s dichlorobenzene. Most contact with dichlorobenzene is through inhalation, and strangely, children are more at risk because dichlorobenzene tends to be heavier than air, and thus collects in poorly ventilated areas or low lying spaces. Even if they live in the same area, children will be exposed to higher rates of dichlorobenzene than adults because they are lower to the ground. The Department of Health and Human Services has determined that dichlorobenzene may reasonably be anticipated to be a carcinogen (their wordy words, not mine).
According to the EPA website, to facilitate redevelopment of the area, the groundwater treatment system was decommissioned 2016. That same year the AMD building was demolished, and currently, a residential development project is underway.
When I arrive, the area where AMD used to be is completely closed off, hidden by a forest green privacy screen covering a sturdy chain link fence. Besides the large trees and old street lamps, the only things visible above the fence are giant piles of debris. Workers drive in an out of the site in large dump trucks, chunks of concrete, stone, and dirt piled high in the beds. I peek through a slice made in the privacy screen. A white man in a hard hat and khaki pants writes something on a clipboard and two other white men look over his shoulder and nod thoughtfully.
We walk the perimeter. There are still AMD signs at all the site’s entrances, the letters sun-bleached or crossed out with a dry erase pen. Through other screen-slices I see random office chairs littered about the property. Some with wheels, some without. A dusty blue one lays turned over near an eight foot pile of metal, a tattered suit jacket draped over its back. A worker in a highlighter yellow vest sprays the piles with a large hose.
In 2010, after successful rezoning efforts nearby in 2006, the owners of the land that 915 De Guigine sits on, approached the city of Sunnyvale about rezoning their own land from industrial to residential. In 2014 Sunnyvale City Council began a study of the area called Sense of Place. The published study is just over 63 pages long, it includes information about traffic and collision patterns, community input, desired walkability, and public transportation routes. Nowhere in the 63 pages are the words superfund site.
A lone construction worker opens a massive gate at the Julian Terrace entrance. Two large dump trucks emerge and for a split second I can see the landscape of the inside; the skeletal system of medium density apartments, piles of freshly cut wood, and a handful of modular buildings. There are workers walking all over the premises, maybe upwards of 50 that I can see.
Besides hard hats, none are wearing protective gear.
Site #3: TRW Microwave: 825 Stewart Drive, Sunnyvale CA 94085
Both the property and the building where TRW Microwave used to be have changed hands many times, but most of the pollution occurred during the time TRW did semiconductor processing. Like the other sites, they stored toxic shit, and eventually it leaked
The old TRW Microwave site is now an Apple campus. Small, but an apple campus. Unassuming. The building is mostly glass on the front, new, with sharp edges – the back looks like it might have been built in the 80’s, the edges are more rounded and its that office-building white. The only color on the building is a bright orange panel in the front, a camera sits in the corner, directly over a grey, plastic trash can. There is a stone and glass sculpture by Christoph Spath called “red disc” 2001. It looks like it should have water in it but it doesn’t. The site is bland. I look for clues but there is nothing but mundaneness. Suburban sprawl, honda civics, and the faded white lines of the parking lot.
Site #3: Philips Semiconductors (formerly Signetics, Inc.) 811 East Arques Avenue, Sunnyvale CA 94085
“Oh shit, it’s a Lowes.”
Signetics Inc. became Philips Semiconductors in 1975. Like AMD, during its 30 year stint in the area, it leaked and left massive amounts of trichloroethylene in both the soil and ground water.
The Lowe’s is anti-climactic. Spacious, with too-early Christmas decorations on sale at the entrance. A customer lounges in a fold out chair, chatting on the phone in their 8×8 plot of astro turf. A BBQ grill to their right and a firepit at their feet, plastic price tags glistening in the fluorescent lighting. I spot a water fountain and proceed to run my hands under a cool stream of water. With the water still running I bring both of my hands to my face and inhale. Like I’d even know what trichloroethylene smells like.
The outside is equally as anti-climactic. I don’t know what I’m expecting, something apocalyptic maybe. Although truth be told the landscape is apocalyptic. 80 something in mid-October. Dry and windy, with PG&E planning massive power shutoffs tomorrow and the next day. But it’s your standard Lowes, sprawling with a large parking lot. Orange and yellow flowers hanging outside the Garden Center.
But it’s not really the Lowe’s that I’m interested in, it’s the mound.
Two weeks earlier, I came across a KQED article that refers to a vacant dome of dirt next to the Lowe’s parking lot. In the article, the EPA site manager Melanie Morash referred to it as “Ground Zero for the triple site” because it has the highest concentrations of trichloroethylene. Whether its accurate or not I think about the three sites as the three circles in a venn diagram. The mound is the overlapping center.
I think, surely the mound has been developed over. I stare at a picture of it in the KQED article, try to commit its curves to memory as if there will be so many mounds I may miss this specific mound. To my surprise, however, it’s still there. Right around the corner, basically still in the Lowe’s parking lot, its there.
It’s pretty typical as far as mounds go. There is no oozing green slime, putrid vapor emanating from its surface, or even bright yellow biohazard barrels. One might even mistake it for a dirt lot, although there is an unmistakable crescendo to its build. It has a small path, or at least, a small strip of dirt where weeds haven’t flourished. Although flourished is the wrong word as they’re mostly dead
Pale, wheat colored, and tilting in the wind they are all bending in the same direction. All reaching for the Lowe’s parking lot.
My partner gestures towards a plant, “What’s this called again? Mallow?” She pulls out here phone to investigate, I’m sitting under a tree near the curb, daydreaming, when her yell cuts through the white noise of street traffic, “…common mallow is native to Europe and although its flowers are very attractive, it is considered a weed. It grows in waste places; roadsides, train tracks, gravel pits, and old buildings.”
A silver Mercedes drives by, 80’s rock blaring from its speakers. A Black Tesla slows behind it, its vanity plate reads, “SWIPE R.”
I guess this is ground zero.