The Silicon Valley Voice

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Is City Place Santa Clara a Safe Environmental Bet?

Santa Clara’s City Place development plan isn’t just another building project. In addition to being the biggest development project proposed in the City’s history, it has a personal connection for me. As an environmental contractor, I provided groundwater monitoring services to the City of Santa Clara at this proposed site from 1976 to 1998. This site includes four parcels that served from 1934 to 1993 as a landfill.

The proposed City Place Santa Clara project is to include up 9.2 million square feet of development that includes parking, hotels, retail stores and housing; all designed to attract people to City Place.

Redeveloping a waste site into a people’s attraction, with a residential component, has always concerned me. During my career, I was always conscious of the need to protect my employees and myself from exposure to environmental contamination. And where would we be likely to be exposed to dangerous substances? Places where we have disposed of our garbage and industrial waste.


Among the long list of written documents on the City of Santa Clara’s website about this project is Santa Clara’s 2015 Draft “Post-Closure Land Use Plan  (Former Santa Clara All-Purpose Landfill, City Place Santa Clara, 5500 Lafayette Street, Santa Clara).”

This plan describes the 240 acre site as the final resting place for “an estimated 5.5 million tons of refuse mass.” Just how much stuff is 5.5 million tons? This landfill is filled with enough garbage to fill 5 paper grocery bags, full, for nearly every foot of coastline in the world. The land has a Landfill Gas (LFG) collection system that fuels an electrical generator.

The landfill was closed in 1992, but the site has been environmentally monitored since at least 1976 (where I come in).

For 22 years, my staff or I were on this site, quarterly. Since then, ongoing monitoring has continued, semi-annually. Recently, in 2014, data on groundwater, leachate—the liquefied decomposition products of garbage materials—and landfill gas show elevated levels of volatile organic chemicals—all much higher than drinking water standards—that carry long-term risks.

Ongoing semi-annual groundwater data show the presence of primary volatile organic solvents (VOCs)—such as multiple forms of 1-1- dichloromethane (DCE), trichloroethene (TCE), and vinyl chloride. Other VOCs are also reported in groundwater at the City Place site.

You can find similar lists of toxics, repeatedly, throughout California’s Central Coast. It’s a standard situation for most of what we know as the “Silicon Valley.”

Environmental contamination is a common problem in Silicon Valley.

Shoreline Amphitheater, built over a City of Mountain View landfill, had past problems with fires on the “grassy knoll” from venting landfill gas (explosive concentrations of odorless methane gas). My personal exposure to vinyl chloride, a very toxic vapor from decomposition, of volatile chlorinated organic solvents required me to wear protective gear and a respirator to work in solvent-contaminated areas.

Residential areas of Mountain View near the Middlefield-Ellis-Whisman (MEW) Superfund Site Area were found to have ”vapor intrusion” hot spots, where a volatile organic solvent vapor (trichloroethene, (TCE) is rising from contaminated groundwater into overlying houses. High levels of indoor TCE is a potential health risk, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

TCE, DCE, and vinyl chloride chemicals are among the principle volatile organic chemicals in both a 1988 Air Quality landfill gas and air quality analysis, and a 2014 groundwater analysis of the former Santa Clara landfill.

The 2015 Post-Closure Land Use Plan for the site acknowledges this.

These chemicals present many risks. Very little in man’s world operates perfectly. So health damage is a real possibility for unsuspecting users of this new project, even if written reports tend to obscure these risks with impenetrable technical language like the following:

“For future residents, inhalation of volatile constituents in the interior space of a future apartment complex without a sub-slab vapor intrusion mitigation including a vapor barrier also results in carcinogenic risk (5E-06) within government-accepted risk management range, but the carcinogenic risks were higher than those for the commercial workers. The HI [Hazard Index] for the apartment resident scenario was below the target HI of 1, indicating the adverse non-cancer effects are not anticipated. Modeled TCE concentrations in indoor air are below the short term action level for residential exposure.”

In plain English, this says, “MAYBE your exposure to these industrial chemicals or their degradation products may not do you immense harm.”

So the question is, how much risk is acceptable in Santa Clara’s development projects? In this case, can we say that 5.5 million tons of garbage will not come back to haunt us?

In the 1970s the Silicon Valley’s semiconductor industry was defined as a “clean industry.” After thousands of holes have been drilled in the ground (monitoring wells) pursuing escaped chemicals at a cost of millions of dollars, we know that “clean industry” has left a lot of damage for present and future generations to live with.

Building communities, where a lot of people live and work, on top of waste dumps poses troubling questions that have not been properly answered. Santa Clara residents need to be aware of the potential consequences to the unsuspecting people who might live and work at City Place. Are you and your family, including your babies, going to be willing to move on top of this pile of garbage, even though what you are offered is very attractive and perhaps functional for your life-style?

Are you willing to accept that risk?

If you would like to share your thoughts on this project, please email your letter to for publication. Please include your name and phone number with your submission—phone numbers will not be published. Letters to the Editor should be limited to one hundred and fifty words.


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