Superfund Sites in Silicon Valley: How Home Buyers Should Be Aware of the Huge Problem of Toxic Contaminants in Bay Area’s Soil
Aug 5, 2022
The year is 1978, and we find ourselves on the southeast end of Niagara Falls, New York, in a small working-class suburb built around the Love Canal landfill site. There’s at least one school, plenty of homes, and a growing community of people hoping to build sturdy, successful lives. It’s August, which has brought about expected rains. What was not expected, however, was the record amount of rainfall that ended up happening.
Due to the unprecedented amount of rain, hazardous substances and chemicals start sprouting up from the ground. A state of emergency is declared in the area by New York State Health Commissioner Robert Whalen.
Soon after this scenario, leaching (a loss of soluble substances and colloids from the top layer of soil by precipitation, according to Britannica) began in the area surrounding Love Canal.
Plant life was dying, waste disposal drums popped up in backyards through the ground like some twisted type of planted seed, and pools of poisonous substances made themselves at home in this once peaceful community. Even worse, birth defects and a tragically high rate of miscarriages were made apparent in the area. Eventually, all families living next to the canal were evacuated.
This event, along with one other that occurred around the same time, was what kickstarted government-mandated management programs of “Superfund” sites that are prolific throughout Silicon Valley and other parts of North America.
What Happened in Love Canal?
Looking towards the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) archives, Eckardt C. Beck, in writing for the EPA Journal in 1979, wrote about the historical decisions that lead up to the Love Canal tragedy. Love Canal was originally established in the late 1800s with the goal of affordable production of electricity for the dream home of a man named William T. Love. This power would be generated “by digging a short canal between the upper and lower Niagara Rivers,” according to Beck.
However, following technological innovation in electricity by Nikola Tesla and economic difficulties, the Love Canal idea was at a critical low. Eventually, the goal of producing power through the canal was abandoned. Things began their descent into tragedy in the 1920s when the canal had begun being used as a chemical dumpsite for industrial and municipal purposes. This site was unmanaged and unregulated, which allowed for a wide variety of dangerous chemicals (such as benzene, a known carcinogen) to be dumped. Then, in 1953, Hooker Chemical Company sold the site to the city for one whole dollar after covering the canal with dirt.
A few years later, in the late 1950s, around 100 homes and even a school were built around the Love Canal site. Then, about twenty years later, residents of Love Canal were faced with tragedy.
What is a Superfund Site and Why Does it Matter?
As innovation and technology continue to take off in the Bay Area and, more specifically, Silicon Valley, the danger of hazardous waste and dumping increases as well. Hazardous waste and materials have been a growing concern for a number of years, dating back to the events in the late 1970s.
“Superfund” is the slang term for the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability ACT (CERCLA) which was established in 1980 by Congress. This was in response to the national attention that was cast upon the previously mentioned Love Canal and unmentioned but equally problematic Valley of the Drums. Through this act, the EPA established the Superfund National Priority List (NPL), which not only works to remediate hazardous materials and dumping sites but also “serves as an information and management tool,” according to the EPA. The NPL is utilized to keep track of known uncontrolled, dangerous, and/or abandoned toxic waste sites.
How many Superfund sites are there in Silicon Valley?
More than other part of the Bay Area, Silicon Valley holds a significant number of hazardous waste sites currently or formerly listed on the NPL. For clarity, Silicon Valley does not include all of the Bay Area. According to the Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce, “The most commonly agreed-upon definition of Silicon Valley encompasses all of Santa Clara County, which includes the following 13 cities: Campbell, Cupertino, Gilroy, Los Altos, Los Gatos, Milpitas, Morgan Hill, Mountain View, Palo Alto, San Jose, Santa Clara, Saratoga, Sunnyvale.”
In Silicon Valley, many Superfund sites have been cleaned up, deemed inactive, or discovered throughout the years. In Santa Clara alone, there are 23 toxic Superfund sites. As the New York Times stated, this number is “more than any county in the county.” NPL maps indicate that the majority of Superfund sites can be found in the South Bay, however, there are some that can be located in other parts of the Bay.
Adding to this number, NBC Bay Area stated in 2014 that, “Government officials have recorded more than 518 toxic plumes in Santa Clara County alone.” These toxic plumes are often referred to as chemical spills and can be caused by something as dangerous as leaks to someone as simple as dry cleaning shops. However, many of these plums find their origins in the beginning years of Silicon Valley back in the late 60s and early 70s, before CERCLA was established.
What does this mean for me?
Knowing this information might cause a few questions to run through your mind, such as:
- Why does this matter to me?
- Is there anything I can do about this?
- Does this mean I can’t buy a home in the South Bay?
First of all, take a deep breath. We can’t resolve all of your questions, and we can’t pretend to have all the answers. If you want to read about the National Priorities List and its management processes, you can do so on the EPA website.
What Atlasa can offer help in is in the process of buying and listing a home. If you are hoping to buy a home in the Bay Area, then we are here to provide aid and guidance through paperwork, worries, and communications. More likely than not, hazards and chemical dangers are brought up in disclosures and documents provided prior to sale. At Atlasa, we understand the challenge of reading through these documents and aim to make the process easier. Even more so, Atlasa will go beyond disclosures, utilizing our due diligence to ensure through public records and sources that the property meets necessary standards.
To get in contact with an Atlasa agent, please reach out at email@example.com or through our website at www.atlasa.com.
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Deniz Kahramaner is the Founder & CEO of the data-driven Real Estate Brokerage Atlasa. His mission is to help home buyers understand the tradeoffs of different home options using big data and analytics. Feel free to contact Deniz if you need help with the home buying or selling process at firstname.lastname@example.org.