On their website, Applied Materials has a timeline of relevant events dating back to the 1970’s, when they opened their headquarters in Santa Clara, California. In 2018 they were named one of the World’s Most Admired Companies by Fortune. They were also the first semiconductor equipment manufacturer to exceed $1 billion in annual sales and have their system added to the permanent collection in the Smithsonian, both of which happened in 1993. Humbly, they mention that they put the silicon in Silicon Valley.
In some ways, they did this literally.
It’s a rainy Friday, so I tell my GPS to navigate using only the surface streets. I begin to pull away from the curb, leaving the dry cover of my neighbor’s palm tree when a white, 20 something riding a bicycle down the street catches my attention. Wearing business professional clothes, they have one pant leg constrained with an inch-thick reflective band – a rain-dappled Timbuk2 rests on their lower back. I pause, the plastic of the seatbelt buckle sits anxiously against my purlicue, the polyester, enjoying its moment of suspension, remains strained against my neck. Within moments they leave my field of vision, veering from the newly painted, lime green bike lane and making a right onto a street I’ve known most of my life, but can’t recall the name of. The “We Buy Houses” sign on the corner pole, which sits directly above a now half-soaked Archive408 flyer, has curled in on itself. I feel the seatbelt click and pull away from the curb.
My route takes me from Ocala to Jackson. Jackson to Maybury. Maybury to Hedding. Hedding to Coleman. Coleman to De La Cruz. De La Cruz to Central Expressway. Central Expressway to Bowers. As the area outside my car shifts from residential to industrial, I consider how eastside sometimes seems to actively thwart gentrification. The Filipino restaurant on Alum Rock and Jackson used to be a Carl’s Jr., the Coffee Lovers on Tully, a Carrows (which, oddly enough, opened three years after Applied Materials, also in Santa Clara). Lucky became a Mi Pueblo before it turned into Cardenas. The old Safeway on story is now a Food Maxx.
I’m not sure how permanent any of this is.
I guess that’s this city’s unofficial slogan.
It’s still here
The parking lot is slick and littered with yellow, orange, and brown leaves. It feels like being in a hall of mirrors, in the rain, almost every surface is reflective. I park next to a smoking shelter – something I didn’t know existed before today. It resembles an extremely misplaced bus stop – greyish teal, covered in foggy plexiglass. Between the three, semi-translucent walls sits a calf-tall wooden slat bench and a trash can. The shelter’s overhang is generous, stretching out a solid 8 to 10 feet, surpassing the bench below. I wonder who or what is supposed to be sheltered here. Is it a place for the smoker to be sheltered from the surrounding toxicity, or the surrounding toxicity from the cigarette smoke? I was accidentally placed in the sex ed version of science class twice in 7th grade, which means I carried around both a flour baby and an egg baby, but never learned about the periodic table. I’ve still never taken a chemistry course, but I do know there are lots of rules around mixing things. Perhaps that’s the objective here. I later find out that these are littered all over campus.
The campus itself is huge. Large cement buildings, some more 80’s looking than others. There appears to be 11 buildings in total, complete with a basketball court and bbq area. There are cars here, but I have not seen one person, save for a security guard making his way around in a white Toyota Tacoma.
Silicon is special
“Silicon is special because it’s what’s called a semiconductor, which means that depending on how it’s treated it can conduct or block the flow of electricity. This makes it ideal for supporting the millions of tiny transistors necessary for a modern computer chip. Because these transistors are so small – the silicon base needs to be absolutely flawless.”
-How do they make Silicon Wafers and Computer Chips video on YouTube by cplai
While Applied Materials never made the silicon wafers themselves, they made the machines other companies used to make silicon wafers. Manufacturing stuff to manufacture silicon wafers is simultaneously an exceptionally toxic and extremely clean process. In the 1970’s Applied Materials used all kinds of industrial solvents for cleaning and degreasing, and by the 80’s they were the first semiconductor equipment maker to manufacture complete systems in cleanrooms.
I watch a handful of videos on about silicon wafer manufacturing on youtube, mostly grainy and from the early late 1990’s and early 2000’s. The silicon resembles mercury. Slick and silver. Pillaged and profitable. An add pops up for a build-your-own-wafer site called Wafer Pro. I begin the process to get a quote. There are too many options with big words I don’t have the energy to look up. I close the browser window and reopen it.
A silicon wafer looks very 90’s in a lot of ways. Perhaps that’s because it reminds me of the music-generating underbelly of a CD. Round like a CD, it is covered in a shimmery waffle pattern – gold or silver. I soon learn that the pattern is a wafer pattern, not a waffle pattern, although to be honest they look exactly the same.
I also learn that there is a lot of heat, oxygen removal, and acids involved in making these wafers. A buffing process referred to as “lapping” is also required. To my surprise, I find that you can purchase them on ebay.
I scroll through the offerings, my favorites are the ones that seem to belong to home sellers. A red and green wafer propped up against a crinkled white bed sheet, another is set casually on an obviously used spiral notebook, a glass cup and blue pen sitting next to it for scale. The seller’s name is goldendigger68. Another seller describes their historic wafers as “fabulous”, and goes on to say that, “…they are not the best…or the worst.”
In the 1970’s, the solvents, cleaners, degreasers, acids, and caustics used at Applied Materials leaked into the groundwater. When discovered, in the mid 80’s, Applied Materials installed a pump to treat the contaminated groundwater. The pump was substantial, it had three wells, an extraction pit, and something called a “dual column air stripper.” All of these mechanisms work together, not to magically disappear contaminants like odors in a Febreeze commercial, but to simply move them from one location to another.
Once the groundwater had been treated, it was “discharged” into a storm drain system which flows directly into nearby San Thomas Aquino Creek.
The contamination was so severe that the treatment system was used for almost two decades, ceasing operation in 2002. Currently, the EPA continues to monitor chemical contamination (how much contamination is still in the groundwater) and vapor plume stability (how, and to what extent, toxic vapors have migrated) at the site.
Applied Materials: A Tour of Various Warnings
Because Applied Materials, unlike the first set of sites, is still in operation, they have done a really good job of limiting the public’s access to information about the harm they’ve caused both the environment and, probably, their employees.
Many folks, mostly immigrant Women of Color, who worked in local semiconductor manufacturing in the 1980’s were exposed to, and required to work with, a host of chemicals that included reproductive toxins (chemicals that effect the reproductive system), mutagens (chemicals that cause genetic mutation), and carcinogens (chemicals that cause cancer). Much of the tech industry has since outsourced this particular brand of exploitation, and has tried to deny that there is any link between their operations and thousands of folks having miscarriages, developing brain tumors, or dying.
Heading back to my car I pass a large glass window, the quick movement inside (the only movement I’ve seen the entire time) catches my attention. I cup my hands around my eyes and lean against the glass – a hand full of folks occupy a bland, greyish room, each on a different exercise machine. They look both calm and distracted, each in their own world, staring into a cell phone or the flatscreen TV hanging in the corner of the room. The click of a door closing diverts my attention. A sweaty figure emerges, gives me a half-hearted smile, and makes their way into the parking lot. I wonder if they are scared, or if they have that, “..something is going to kill you either way…” attitude. They light a cigarette, climb into their lifted, cherry-red truck, and drive away.
While walking Applied Materials, so much of my time was spent reading the numerous warning signs littered throughout the campuses. These are what I will leave you with.
OCTOBER MONTOYA is a mixed, queer and trans media artist from East San Jose.
EPA Should Take Additional Actions to Manage Risks from Climate Change: https://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-20-73
Hundreds of former US industrial sites are at risk of releasing toxics because of climate change by Jeff Johnson: https://cen.acs.org/environment/pollution/Hundreds-former-US-industrial-sites/97/i46
FEMA flood map service center (map with light blue): https://msc.fema.gov/portal/search?AddressQuery=applied%20materials#searchresultsanchor
EPA Superfund site: https://cumulis.epa.gov/supercpad/cursites/csitinfo.cfm?id=0901344How do they make Silicon Wafers: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aWVywhzuHnQ&t=299s