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.


Dan Brekke

Dan Brekke is a blogger, reporter and editor for KQED News, responsible for online breaking news coverage of topics ranging from California water issues to the Bay Area's transportation challenges. In a newsroom career that began in Chicago in 1972, Dan has worked as a city and foreign/national editor for The San Francisco Examiner, editor at Wired News, deputy editor at Wired magazine, managing editor at TechTV as well as for several Web startups.

Since joining KQED in 2007, Dan has reported, edited and produced both radio and online features and breaking news pieces. He has shared in two Society of Professional Journalists Norcal Excellence in Journalism awards — for his 2012 reporting on a KQED Science series on water and power in California, and in 2014, for KQED's comprehensive reporting on the south Napa earthquake.

In addition to his 44 years of on-the-job education, Dan is a lifelong student of history and is still pursuing an undergraduate degree.

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