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Toxic Avenger

[whitespace] Ted Smith
Christopher Gardner

Ted Smith has made checking up on Silicon Valley's toxic legacy his life's work. And he's far from finished.

By Jim Rendon

ACROSS ROUTE 101 from Moffett Field's imposing hangars, a pod of glassy two-story buildings rises from the upturned soil, like the overnight development marking countless other sites throughout the valley. But here, at the edge of Netscape's freshly paved lot, a relic casts its shadow on the new construction. Out of place in the user-friendly world of software ventures, this two-story gray tube looks like part of a sunken battle ship, the remnant of a wreck poking up out of the ground. Industrial, mechanical, it is part of something different, something paved over and built on, something the valley has tried hard to push beneath the surface.

When Ted Smith sees the pipe, he pulls his red Chevrolet Geo over to the curb. He backs up, spins the car around and zips through the glistening black lot past the puzzled stares of the hard-hatted construction crew. Driving up to the tower, he scrunches his head down to get a better view through the windshield. "Ha, look at that," he laughs.

The gray tower is the topside marker of a 15-year cleanup at one of the largest and most dangerous toxic waste sites in the county, stretching from Middlefield Road across Highway 101 to the bay. Decades ago, groundwater here was discovered to be contaminated by chipmaking giants Fairchild, Raytheon and Intel, whose toxic chemical leftovers had mixed with the underground waste products of nearby Moffett Field. And each year the deadly brew of solvents used by the chip industry that are all suspected carcinogens--xylene, TCE, TCA, and 111-TCA, moving in an underground plume-- leaches closer to the bay. The cleanup consists of pumping contaminated water out of the ground, spraying it against the walls of the pipe at high pressure, and pushing it back into the earth. The leftover chemicals evaporate up out of the pipe and into the breeze just outside Netscape's glistening front door, a process expected to go on for another 70 to 300 years.

Smith stops the car to get a better look at the toxic tower poking its way into Netscape's clean new manifestation of the high-tech future. "People working here will probably have no idea what that is," he says, shaking his head. He slides down in his seat a bit and flashes another look at the fresh landscaping and the pristine building. "I can't believe," he says again, "they built right up next to it like that." He chuckles to himself some more.

Smith's laugh is not wholly cynical. There is a hint of genuine amusement and even some compassion in his voice--an emotional feat for someone who has spent the last 16 years butting up against Silicon Valley's moneyed and beloved namesake industry. As founder and director of the nonprofit Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, Smith has made his life's work pushing the valley's high-tech manufacturing industry in directions it did not always want to go. Though the computer industry has won its way into the hearts of cities throughout the Bay Area, the Southwest and the world by billing itself as a clean industry, its 50-year history here has left Santa Clara County with more Superfund sites than any other county in America. And Smith isn't going to let anyone forget it.

Chemical Warfare

'THIS COULD JUST as easily be called Arsenic Alley as Silicon Valley," Smith says as he turns out of Netscape's lot onto Wishman Road. Arsenic, he points out, is as important to computer chip manufacturing as silicon. Arsenic changes the chemical properties in the chip, allowing it to better conduct electricity. Arsenic is just one of the more than 1,000 chemicals that go into making a chip.

The high cost of doing business in the valley, coupled with tightened environmental constraints, inspired many of the valley's semiconductor manufacturing operations to expand out of state or offshore during the past decade. "This place is built out; the infrastructure is taxed," says Jeff Weir, a spokesperson with the Semiconductor Industry Association. "The expansion of the chip industry has moved to other states that have land, water, universities for research, and open spaces for growth." Despite this trend, dozens of companies still manufacture components here, including IBM, Intel, National Semiconductor and Cypress Semiconductor.

To make a single six-inch silicon wafer, companies use 2,275 gallons of water, 20 pounds of chemicals and 22 cubic feet of hazardous gases and produce seven pounds of hazardous waste. Here in Silicon Valley, the entire toxic food chain from chemical supplier to hazardous waste disposal is scattered throughout the cradle between the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Diablo Range. Though tons of chemicals are hauled up and down Highway 101 every day, very little is known about most of them. Smith, for example, says that of the 70,000 chemicals in use today, only a small portion have even been tested on animals. And despite the rampant use of thousands of chemicals in one of the most populous areas of the country, scientists have studied the impact of only a fraction of these chemicals on humans.

The toxic threat in San Jose has been so pronounced for so long that the city was one of the first in the country to have a unit of its fire department dedicated to handling toxic spills.

"There is a tremendous potential for disaster," confirms Battalion Chief Henry DeGroot, who runs one of the city's Hazardous Incident Teams on Zanker Road. The semiconductor industry uses everything from gases that deplete oxygen, to gases that explode when they contact oxygen, to what DeGroot calls Methyl Ethyl Death: "If you smell it, you're already dead," he says. Though the sheer number of toxic materials employed in the valley's chip industry every day creates a serious threat, DeGroot says the industry is much safer than it used to be. Nonetheless, calls to high-tech plants make up a significant portion of the HIT unit's daily work.

Meanwhile, the industry keeps rushing forward, making chips smaller and faster and working to outdo the competition. As a result, the proportions and combinations of those chemicals are constantly changing.

For an environmentalist like Smith, that's a formula for disaster. "Whenever we make some progress, the industry is out ahead of us making more problems," Smith says. "We are always playing catch-up." In the rush to bring new products to market, even basic regulation has become a contentious issue. After years of complaints about the time-consuming permitting process for manufacturing plants, in 1996 the EPA relaxed the process for Intel's Arizona plant, in Smith's view setting a dangerous precedent for the chemical-intensive industry.

The industry has had its share of trouble in the past. Glycol ethers, once a commonly used solvent, have been shown to cause miscarriages. A series of lawsuits brought forward by Smith's wife, Amanda Hawes (see related story, page 26), alleges that workers at IBM's facilities suffered from cancer because of the chemicals they were exposed to on the job.

For people living near plants who are concerned about the impact of these chemicals--whether airborne or in the soil and water--there is very little information. Those that have been tested were tested on animals by exposing them to large amounts of the toxin over a short period of time. A maximum level for human exposure over a 30-year period is extrapolated by formula. But people who live near plants or work in the factories experience long-term exposure to small amounts of chemicals, often in combination with each other. Unfortunately, the EPA can't study the effect of that kind of exposure because the variables are too great. That means that chip manufacturing is really one great experiment, Smith says. And Silicon Valley has been the guinea pig for decades.

Happy Dumping Grounds

IN A SMALL, unassuming house on N. First Street, just around the corner from City Hall, the 53-year-old Smith leans forward to get a better look at his computer monitor. He clicks and waits for the signal that the machine is dialing up. Smith is really excited about maps on his new Web page. "Using the Man's technology," he smirks, as the logo for Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition rolls down the screen. He clicks, then clicks again, bringing up a map of the county dotted with dozens of toxic hot spots. The little dots appear in clusters, like beads hanging from a necklace, following the path of Route 101 from Moffett Field south toward Gilroy.

Smith clicks on different links that cause shaded areas to appear on the county map that detail information about race, income and the prevalence of rental housing in the county. After a few minutes of map merging, Smith's point is clear. The spills match, sometimes identically, with lower-income and minority communities.

Smith's conclusions are supported by Andrew Szasz, an associate professor of sociology at UC-Santa Cruz, who found in a recent study that low-income communities in Santa Clara County bear more than their fair share of toxic exposure. Poor and minority neighborhoods are far more likely to be next to factories that release thousands of pounds of toxic gases into the air every year. People who earn between $20,000 and $40,000 a year were exposed to more toxic releases than any other group, Szasz says. Those highest on the income scale had no releases in their communities at all. Latinos were more likely than any other group to live next to plants that belch out toxic leftovers.

Toxic dumping in poor, non-white neighborhoods has been going on for decades all across the country, Smith says. It is just one of the many ways these groups are discriminated against. "The land is cheaper and the communities are not as well organized, so companies can just get away with it," he says. And once a community is dumped on, the cycle of diminishing property values, rampant health problems and deteriorating neighborhoods is nearly impossible to reverse. It is that connection between the environment and people that drew Smith to his work.


Environmental issues in the valley that bear continued surveillance.

Amanda Hawes, Ted Smith's wife, takes worker complaints about high-tech toxins into the courtroom.


Working Class Hero

SMITH IS NO poster child for environmental activism. He carries a leather briefcase, drives a car that is entirely free of bumper stickers, and has no zeal for locking himself to factory gates. He's an environmentalist of a different breed, taking his inspiration from people like Paul Robeson, the politically outspoken actor, singer and athlete who put race issues on the American agenda in the 1930s, and Clarence Darrow, the attorney who argued for the right to teach evolution in school in the Scopes Monkey trial. Pictures of both men hang in his office.

Smith grew up in Schenectady, N.Y., where his father was a lifetime company man, working for the nuclear division of GE. It was a stable, idyllic childhood. But all that changed when he left for Wesleyan College in the early 1960s.

Martin Luther King passed through the college town on a speaking tour, stirring up support for the civil rights movement. Smith was hooked. Once school ended, he signed up for the Vista program, a newly formed domestic Peace Corps, and moved to Washington, D.C. He was dropped into an assignment with Head Start, where he worked with parents and children in preschool. "I was exposed to heavy doses of urban reality," he says. "Seeing the tremendous poverty and degradation in Washington was a shock."

This view of life in the inner city changed Smith. He left Washington bound for Stanford Law School, hoping to fight social injustice in the courtroom. After graduation, Smith started his law practice in San Jose, representing poor people who had been kicked out of their homes, abused by police and injured in unsafe jobs. By the late 1970s, he was finally making some progress with the canneries when they pulled up their stakes and moved out to the Central Valley and down to Mexico.

Like most people in the late '70s, Smith harbored no suspicion toward the computer industry that was just beginning to take off in the valley. From the beginning, the industry billed itself as a clean manufacturer that would change the world by producing more leisure time. "As we have learned, none of that quite worked out the way it was billed," he laughs.

It was not until the fall of 1981 that the toxic underbelly of the chip industry was first exposed. In the south end of San Jose near where highways 101 and 85 meet, Ted Smith rediscovered his calling and threw himself into the spotlight.

Fairchild 'Hood

SMITH SLOWS HIS car as he turns onto Via Del Oro in south San Jose. Looking out the passenger's-side window, his eyes bulge with amazement at the bulldozers, the turned-up dirt and cinder-block walls that are rising on a vacant lot. Below the churned-up surface, Smith explains, walls run 120 feet into the ground to keep contamination on the site from leaking further. Two decades ago, Fairchild Semiconductor stamped out computer chips in a massive concrete building here. For years toxic chemicals leaked from storage tanks into the groundwater and eventually spread into a well less than a mile down the road, polluting the aquifer and local drinking water. The former well site is slated to become another software park.

Sixteen years ago, Lorraine Ross lived in Los Paseos, right across the street. Neighbors had never thought to worry--this was the clean, new computer industry. But while she was living in tree-lined, middle-class Los Paseos, Ross's son was born with a heart defect. Shortly afterward, reports about a leak at the plant surfaced and Ross got suspicious. After knocking on neighbors' doors, she found that other children in the neighborhood had been born with heart, eye and urinary tract defects, and many women were having miscarriages.

When Smith heard about the Fairchild leak and the subsequent health problems, he abandoned his law practice to work with Ross and other community activists.

What they turned up was a disaster larger than anyone expected. In the following months, 85 percent of the high-tech manufacturing companies in the valley reported leaks in their buried chemical tanks, many of which were getting into the groundwater. "No one could believe they could be so sloppy as to just bury the chemicals and forget about them," Smith says.

Smith pressured local government and regulatory agencies to respond to the crisis by organizing groups that had not worked together before. "We turned out hundreds of people at these local meetings," Smith says. He called on his ties in labor, public health and even neighborhood associations.

Over time, more problems kept surfacing. The organization collaborated with environmental and labor groups to halt the industry's use of ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons and to push for better handling of toxic gases. The coalition also pushed for the ban of glycol ethers, which an industry-funded study determined were a cause of high rates of miscarriage among workers.

Though hardly perfect, the chip industry is a far cry from the toxic mess it was in the 1970s, Smith says. Thanks in part to Smith's work, manufacturers must disclose information about the chemicals they use, toxins are no longer stored in underground tanks, some chemicals are recycled, and workers are no longer swimming in a sea of deadly solvents without any protection.

Mr. Cleanroom

DOWN THE ROAD from Mission College, Intel's blue-and-white buildings tower over the surrounding software ventures. Intel, the largest chip-maker in the world, still does some manufacturing locally, but it is small-scale and geared toward the development of new products. This 60,000-square-foot manufacturing space is one-third the size of Intel's newer production facilities in Oregon, Arizona and Ireland. Small as it is, Intel still discharges 650,000 gallons of water a day and uses a soup of chemicals so extensive that John Carpenter, the production manager, is uncertain about what all is on the list.

Behind thick glass and double-locked pressurized doors, the Intel chip dippers shuffle around in full-body white suits, some with ventilator hoses that hang from their helmets attaching to a small box on their belt. This is a level-one clean room. That means that the air has no more than one micron-sized particle in a cubic foot of air. That's the equivalent, says Intel spokesman Howard High, of one pea-sized particle in three cubic miles of air.

Little black boxes ride on monorails above the heads of workers, delivering six-inch wafers from one part of the manufacturing process to another. Chips are churned out with little human contact. Intel's suited worker bees stand in bays in front of computer terminals, typing commands for what Carpenter calls the tools--giant, wired, chemical-handling assembly line machines.

Though it looks safe, most of the precautions that make Intel's insides look like a student science fiction film have not come from concerns over worker safety, but instead represent a bending to the fussiness of the silicon wafer. While in many instances keeping the chip safe may keep the worker safe, toxic vapors don't have any effect on the chip. And though air is circulated constantly to filter out chip-damaging particles, it is not vented and refreshed at the same rate. Workers can spend all day inside rooms full of vapors. Venting vapors into the community has also been a problem in the past. Before ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons were phased out of the industry, IBM released 1.5 million pounds of CFCs a year from its valley plant.

These days, the discussion of chemicals that are vented into the air takes on an almost rumor-like quality. Smith gets calls from people who live near manufacturing plants, complaining of horrible solvent smells that burn nasal passages, especially at night. Though the industry says it is clean, toxins are still pushed out of factories through smokestacks, like the "dirty manufacturers" elsewhere. According to the EPA's Toxic Release Inventory, in 1996 IBM's Cottle Road facility belched 170 pounds of ethylene glycol and 4,900 pounds of N-Methyl-2-Pyrrolidone into the air. Ethylene glycol can cause nausea, vomiting, headache, kidney and liver damage, and in some cases death. The other chemical is not described by the EPA.

Suburban Superfund

ON DUANE AVENUE in Sunnyvale, Smith points out a Montessori school. Looming behind it is the bright green facade of Advance Micro Devices. "This is the heartland," Smith says. On the right is the school and an endless blur of high-rise, high-tech manufacturing cubes; on the left are row after row of identical, modest, single-family homes that look as if they had been squeezed out of a Play-Doh molding machine.

"See those tiny manhole covers?" Smith says, pointing at the road as we drive past another row of homes. "That's toxic cleanup." Under the street a system of pipes and pumps is pulling water up out of the ground, pumping it over to one of the plants across the way, where it is filtered and then pumped it back into the ground. The signs of cleanup are everywhere, if you know what to look for.

As we drive around, Smith seems in no hurry. He follows the speed limit, uses his turn signals and gets where he needs to go without flouting the law. In his activism, civil disobedience has never really suited him, either. He says that kind of confrontation would not work here in the valley. Smith is not working to stop the industry or to tailgate it out of town. He is trying to change the way high-tech manufacturers do business, and that requires a more subtle and complicated approach than Kryptonite locks and protest songs. It requires an intricate cocktail composed of outside agitating, inside brokering and the ability to gain respect from his opponents without compromising. It's a unique brew that Smith has mastered as well as anyone. It's the potion that Smith hopes will ensure a cleaner, healthier future for this valley and the countless places around the globe where the computer-manufacturing industry is moving.

Understanding the competitive culture of the chip industry is vital to Smith's work. He rattles off statistics about the most recent market wars without pausing to think. And it is just that culture of intense competition that makes environmental innovation hard to come by, he says. "The top leadership of the most aggressive companies are really a major problem." Their hyped-up competitive attitude precludes any kind of responsible sustainable approach to manufacturing, he says. But, as always, Smith's faith is with the people. While the top management may be out of whack, the vast majority of high-tech workers, he thinks, are reasonable, caring people, and those are the ones who push for change. "These people are trapped and want out of the faster, cheaper rat race. I've not met too many people in the industry that are evil."

Trashing Ted

BUT INDUSTRY INSIDERS are not quite as charitable about Smith. While even tobacco companies have found a kinder, gentler public relations line, chip manufacturers here in the valley seem not to have caught on. Many high-tech manufacturers refused requests for tours, saying, like Bill Calahan at National Semiconductor, "We just don't want to be involved in an article on Ted Smith."

At the Semiconductor Industry Association, Lee Neal, who runs its environmental program, laughs about Smith's work. "Well, we don't date," he says. He sees Smith as an ignorant outside agitator who wants to unionize the industry. While union representatives do sit on Smith's board, and unions have always played a part in applying pressure to the industry, high tech is little more unionized today than when Smith began his work 16 years ago. While Neal suggested that the coalition was supported by unions, Leslie Hamilton, the head fundraiser for the coalition, says the vast majority of the organization's money comes from foundations like the Mott Foundation, and last year unions contributed only $1,000 to the toxics coalition's $500,000 annual budget.

Like others in the industry, Neal says manufacturers are doing fine without Smith. He points to his organization's technology road map, a 196-page document that outlines challenges for the future of the chip industry. Though he sees this as a positive environmental plan, one really has to dig to find the nine pages devoted to the environment, health and safety.

Some people in the industry, however, are beginning to listen. As part of a settlement with the city of San Jose over illegal water discharge into the bay, the Santa Clara County Pollution Prevention Center was founded to force discussion between environmentalists, industry and local government. The organization was Smith's brainchild, and he sits on its board. "We focus on pollution prevention instead of pollution containment, which bankrupts the community," says Pat Ferraro, the agency's director. "It is different than it was 20 years ago, when we hurled epithets and filed lawsuits. Now the key players are at the table."

Bill Whitmer, a former vice president with Komag, a valley hard-drive manufacturer, worked with Smith on the board. "Initially, I was concerned that he would be an adversarial wacko," he says, but those fears soon fell by the wayside. "We get on well. We gained respect for each other and have a positive relationship."

Whitmer is a private consultant working on a hard-drive manufacturing process in which no water is discharged. Closed-loop manufacturing, in which water is reclaimed and re-used, is the solution Smith wants the industry to pursue. But the industry has been resistant. Closing the loop requires that the environment become a priority in the earliest phases of product development. With so much money riding on getting a product to market first, industry is resistant to putting on the brakes for the environment.

Going Global

SMITH STICKS OUT like a sore thumb at San Francisco's Hyatt Regency. Plunked down in the middle of a small conference room filled with mid-level executives in new suits, shiny shoes and hair gel, Smith is decidedly not one of the boys. He is the kind of person who just doesn't have a suit. But appearances can be deceiving. Less than halfway through the meeting, the immaculately dressed man sitting in front of me has already spilled his second glass of water on the floor and can't stop whispering to the guy next to him about racquetball. But across the room, Smith is intent. He's taking notes and asking hard questions.

Today's discussion is about ISO 14000. ISO, the International Standardization Organization, got its start developing guidelines for threads on bolts and nuts. Fifty years later, the organization is trying to develop an international environmental rating system for corporations. This, Smith says, has the potential to be a great tool--the question is how to create a system business will want to be a part of without gutting it so much that it is meaningless. Businesses don't want to disclose any environmental information and prefer a closed self-rating system. As the Power Point presentations drone on, Smith keeps jotting down notes, waiting to ask how a company in Chile tracks work-related illness, how the organization plans to keep standards from eroding, how any company can be rated without disclosing information.

More and more Smith is finding himself in these acronym-filled windowless rooms chewing the fat with high-tech managers, most of whom would really rather be elsewhere. Pushing his vision over the hills surrounding Silicon Valley to the rest of the world is a very different endeavor. He communicates with groups across the globe online rather than at community meetings. He sits in on conferences, shows up at meetings. Smith, in some ways, has become an environmental bureaucrat.

Rather than focus on cleaning up its act at home, Smith says matter-of-factly, the chip industry has found it easy to take its lazy environmental habits elsewhere. High-tech manufacturing has moved to Asia, the Middle East, Scotland and Ireland, as well as our own Southwest, Pacific Northwest and, most recently, Southeast.

Problems have begun to show up in these far-flung locations. Workers in National Semiconductor's Scotland operation allege they suffered miscarriages, cancers and respiratory problems. Since 1996, there have been five major fires at semiconductor manufacturing plants in Taiwan.

And Smith is not daunted by the rapid expansion that in other industries has often brought brutal labor practices and environmental disaster for the new host country. Characteristically, he sees opportunity, and has made international work his new focus. "This is the mother country here in Silicon Valley, where the big bucks and the brains and the headquarters are," he says. Smith hopes that by pushing for better, safer conditions here and networking with community groups around the globe, he can make the industry cleaner and more responsible overseas as well. "We can establish more sustainable practices and a more accountable industry [internationally] because we have a highly educated and more aware, sensitive population here," he says.

But the legwork needed to make that happen is not quite so glamorous. After the meeting breaks up, Smith files out toward the bar and food table to mingle with the 50 or suits over drinks and finger food. Smith is deceptively good at schmoozing with the crowd. He is, after all, from their world--an elite East Coast college and Stanford Law School. But Smith took a turn in life that the man in the blue suit next to him doesn't understand. And no matter what it takes--dozens of these conflicted gatherings, thousands of miles on his car, countless hours in front of his computer screen--Smith is hoping to get a few more of them to turn as well, even if ever so slightly.

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From the September 24-30, 1998 issue of Metro.

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