Saturday, August 10, 2013

The go-go years: wallowing in solvents

Boston is encircled by a ring road called Route 128, along which you can occasionally see signs that say "America's Technology Highway." The road earned its title during the rapid development of the post-WWII boom, which particularly affected the emerging electronics industry. Old-timers nostalgically refer to this period as the "go-go years" because everything seemed possible. Job-creators rolled off brand-new exit ramps into towns like Burlington, Massachusetts, carrying briefcases full of money, and town officials cut red tape and issued permits without asking too many questions.

Northwest Park is a woodsy office park in the town of Burlington, perched on a hill near the highway, and packed with low concrete buildings. During the go-go years, most of the tenants were fabricating semiconductors, and in the process routinely using highly toxic solvents. Thousands of barrels of spent solvents--frequently contaminated with other hazardous materials--were casually emptied into unlined gravel pits near the buildings, or in one case literally poured into a hole in the floor. The solvents gradually flowed downhill, under a nearby road and into the town's well field. When the storm sewers along Middlesex Turnpike failed, a Public Works employee was sent down a manhole to take a look, and reported back that the sewer pipes were gone, dissolved away. That's how Burlington officials learned--years too late--that they had a problem.

Thousands of monitoring wells were drilled to map the solvent plumes and track their inexorable spread. Some of the drinking water wells had to be permanently retired, and a huge industrial facility was built next to the well field, designed to pump groundwater up, through filters, and back into the ground. Smaller filtration stations were installed in the office park, carefully concealed in rustic wooden sheds. After the filters failed to achieve the desired result, vast quantities of potassium permanganate were injected into the ground, in an attempt to neutralize the solvents, which tend to pool beneath rocks. Arsenic and PCB were also found in some locations, and new surprises turn up regularly. It's not unusual to see contractors pressure-washing rocks, or trucking away a whole hillside, at state expense of course. There are hundreds of documents on Northwest Park in the state environmental department's database, spanning forty years, and totaling tens of thousands of pages.

And that's just one office park in one small suburb of Boston. And that's a success story, in the sense that some of the perpetrators ("responsible parties" in the jargon) could be identified, were still in business, and were eventually forced via interminable litigation to cough up some money. But such happy endings are rare. Many Massachusetts sites were so severely contaminated that remediation would bankrupt the state, and since in most of those cases the responsible parties are unknown or long defunct, the federal government ends up holding the bag. Those cases are Superfund sites, and they also form a ring around Boston, roughly following America's Technology Highway.

Multiply Boston's example times hundreds of other American cities--some facing much worse contamination--and you can begin to reckon the true costs of the go-go years, not just in terms of monumental waste of public funds, but in terms of illness, deformity, and untimely death. It would have been far cheaper to avoid dumping hazardous waste in the first place. Nonetheless job-creators consistently chose to maximize short-term profits, gambling that future costs would be borne by faceless others. Economists call such costs externalities, and steeply discount them. Externalities are for victims.

Northwest Park hazardous waste - Google Maps

Superfund sites in Middlesex County, Massachusetts - Google Maps

1 comment:

gail zawacki said...

Hi Chris just accidentally found your blog (googling peter ward) and wanted to say I really like your writing and say hi to a fellow Desdemona follower!