The Center for Investigative Reporting has published a scarifying and exhaustive story on a fundamental problem besetting the cleanup of Silicon Valley groundwater polluted decades ago by the semiconductor industry. The CIR report documents the long and virtually endless journey toxins make from a single Environmental Protection Agency Superfund cleanup site in Mountain View to facilities across the country where poisons are supposed to be treated and, in theory, rendered less harmful.

Here’s how CIR reporters Susanne Rust and Matt Drange summarize the process:

Once it leaves Mountain View, the toxic waste gets shipped, treated and burned in places like Oklahoma and Arizona, discharging waste in small towns and on a Native American reservation, and in some cases creating even more harmful chemicals, The Center for Investigative Reporting has found.

Along the way, waste treatment plants rack up environmental violations, records show. Byproducts created during treatment are shuttled from one plant to another. And then another. After crisscrossing the country, the waste even can end up right back where it started – at a treatment plant just a few miles away in Silicon Valley.

It’s a shell game in which one environmental danger appears to be addressed, yet is moved somewhere else in the form of a new problem.

“There’s really no such thing as throwing something away,” said Environmental Protection Agency spokesman Rusty Harris-Bishop. “You’re always throwing it somewhere.”

The report, produced in conjunction with The Guardian US, is chock-full of interactive explainers of the steps involved in the marathon journey of toxins once they’ve been “cleaned up.” For a taste of what’s in the report, check out “The Adventures of Toxic Jo,” above.

Author

Dan Brekke

Dan Brekke (Twitter: @danbrekke) has worked in media ever since Nixon's first term, when newspapers were still using hot type. He had moved on to online news by the time Bill Clinton met Monica Lewinsky. He's been at KQED since 2007, is an enthusiastic practitioner of radio and online journalism and will talk to you about absolutely anything. Reach Dan Brekke at dbrekke@kqed.org.

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