Concern For Mountain View Toxic Plume Expanded

High levels of toxic TCE in the air has some residents raising questions

Some residents who live around Moffett Field say they are scared. Others say they’re not worried at all.

Depending on whom you talk to, the EPA’s findings of higher than expected levels of TCE in the air and in the groundwater near the Mountain View property is either a cause for big concern or no big deal.

But one thing is certain. Everyone is talking about the new test results from the EPA showing a presence of toxic chemicals in the air and in the groundwater in and around the Middlefield, Ellis, Whisman or M-E-W  Superfund site.

According to the EPA, the underground Superfund site include a wide variety of toxic chemicals including PCE and Vinyl Chloride, chemicals left over from the budding semi-conductor industry that got its start in the buildings along Middlefield and Whisman Roads and Ellis Street.

Click here to see the EPA’s MEW Superfund site

The chemical of most concern and most quantity in the toxic underground plume is a chemical called Trichloroethylene, known as TCE. It's a cleaning solvent once commonly used by the military and the budding semi-conducting industry 30 years ago.

The EPA says that TCE is a toxic solvent that causes cancer in people and heart deformities in unborn babies. According to EPA experts the toxic plume has been lurking underground for decades ever since nascent semi-conductor companies apparently dumped or allowed TCE and other chemicals to leak into the ground.

According to EPA officials the United States military also used TCE to clean airplanes and vehicles during that same time period.

The plume extends from under the runway at Moffett Field a mile and a half south and west under Highway 101 and past Middlefield Road. To the north it goes to Whisman Road and south to just past Ellis Street.

The plume of mostly TCE is believed by EPA investigators to be about a half mile wide at its widest point.

Click here to see a map of that original plume.

After NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit began asking questions in April, 2012, about possible health effects of the TCE plumes the Cancer Prevention Institute of California (CPIC) opened its own probe.

After exhaustive research and analysis of three decades worth of health data, California’s state cancer registry announced that it found a higher than expected number of people living in neighborhood surrounding the M-E-W Superfund site who had contracted a group of cancers the registry’s scientists call non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

The higher than expected incidence of these cancers occurred during the years 1996 to 2005.

Now the EPA admits that until recently it had somehow missed some “hot spots” of higher than acceptable levels of TCE in groundwater and in the air in several homes and more than 20 commercial buildings in the area. Two of the hotspots were found by EPA investigators along Evandale Avenue outside the original plume area.

That concerns some residents who live on that road. Residents like, Theresa Larrieu who has lived in a home along Evandale with her family for a quarter century. Larrieu said that the family always knew the M-E-W Superfund was nearby but figured it didn’t directly affect them since it wasn’t right next door. The Superfund site was far enough away, Larrieu thought, to be present but not an impact on her family’s health or life.

Now, with these new EPA test results, the TCE plumes appears to actually be right next door and it may even be under Larrieu’s home. The EPA has conducted air, water and soil tests in and around the home but the results have not come back as of this writing. See new report dated Dec, 2012.

Larrieu says she's worried and is holding her breath waiting on the results of those air and water sample tests the EPA took from her home. “Scared. Nervous. Worried. Very worried,” Larrieu said when asked to describe her emotions. “(There’s) way more suspense than I need in my life.”

“Your first thought is your health, is this affecting us is this affecting other neighbors that I know had health issues,” said Larrieu.

The EPA shares Larrieu’s concerns and M-E-W Superfund Site manager Alana Lee emphasizes they are working hard to address and clean up the mess. “We cleaned up over 5 ¼ billion gallons of contaminated water and over 110,000 pounds of toxic contaminant,” said Lee.

But Lee also said that the EPA also missed these hot spots of TCE both in groundwater and in the air inside some buildings along Evandale Avenue including two homes outside the original plume area.

“The concentration (found there) is very high,” said Lee, “A very high concentration.”

How high?

According to documents from test results, the highest TCE levels that the EPA measured in ground water in the area reached 130,000 parts per billion. The EPA considers anything over 5 parts per billion unsafe.

In the commercial buildings nearby, including two now occupied by Google, EPA tests found TCE in the air at levels 26 times higher than the level considered by the EPA to be acceptable and safe. 

Click here to read the preliminary analysis by Mountain View's Center for Public Environmental Oversight (pdf).

“Once we found these concentrations, which were a surprise, we took immediate action,” said Lee.

Bruce Panchal’s home is one of the two houses located on Evandale where the EPA found high levels of TCE. The companies responsible for the toxic chemical cleanup installed a series of four pipes in and around his home to ventilate the toxic TCE fumes leeching from the ground away from the house’s interior to the outside.

Even so Panchal said he’s not worried. “They found a high concentration and with the system it pumps out all the fumes so it safe,” said Panchal.

Panchal and his family have lived in his home along Evandale for 45 years. He said he worked for the budding semi-conductor businesses that got their start in his neighborhood. He even said he handled the chemicals now in question and dumped them in the ground back then.

Despite the new contraptions now pumping air away from the inside of his house, he says he isn’t worried about his or his family’s health. “I’m living proof that they have an issue with the fumes but it is not death defying or a detriment to your health,” said Panchal.

EPA officials said they also found high levels of TCE in more than twenty different commercial buildings between Whisman Road and Ellis Street. Included among those buildings are two new office complexes for Google employees where, the EPA says, renovations and construction allowed higher than expected levels of TCE to leech from the ground through the buildings’ concrete slabs and into the air inside.

It is in some of these buildings where EPA investigators found levels of TCE vapors in the interior air that were as much as 26 times higher than acceptable safe levels with air conditioning systems off.

The EPA says it has systems in place in and around those buildings to keep vapors outside.

Google tells us they take this matter seriously and they’ve already taken measures to ensure that the buildings and the work area is safe.

Theresa Larrieu worries that it may be too late to keep her family from feeling the health effects of this toxic plume. She wonders how long they may have been exposed to these vapors and chemicals that went undetected until recently.

“It is scary,” said Larrieu. “I’m very scared. I have children. I have grandchildren.”

Larrieu also remains concerned that not even the EPA can say how long the fumes have been leeching into the neighborhood or how long she and her family have unknowingly been exposed.

When we asked the EPA if they knew exactly how long have these newly discovered TCE hot spots had been there the EPA’s Superfund Site manager Alana Lee said, “We don’t know.”

When we asked whether the toxic chemicals migrate underground or traveled down Evandale Avenue or whether those chemicals had been lurking there underground along with the rest of the toxic plume for decades, Lee had the same answer. “We don’t know.”

The EPA said it will take decades more to clean up this toxic mess.

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