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Below some of the world’s most expensive real estate, in the heart of Silicon Valley, pipes and pumps suck thousands of gallons of contaminated water every hour from vast underground toxic pools.
Giant industrial filters trap droplets of dangerous chemicals at the surface, all in the hope of making the water drinkable again and protecting the workers of tech giants such as Google Inc. and Symantec Corp. from toxic vapors.
But that costly journey to the surface is only the start of a toxic trail with no clear end.
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 EPA pays close attention to the more than 1,300 toxic sites that constitute its landmark Superfund program. But the toxic trail highlights a key gap: After the waste-hauling trucks rumble out of town, the EPA considers the job to be finished.
As a result, the country’s environmental regulators are creating their own legacy of unintended consequences as they grapple with the mess left behind by a previous generation. Along the trail, contained toxic waste is turned into an array of uncontrolled and potentially worse problems that fan out across the U.S.