In 2004, Emeryville, an industrial suburb of San Francisco, sent an environmental remediation crew to inject 15,000 gallons of cottage cheese into groundwater below an abandoned factory. The factory manufactured car bumpers from 1951 to 1967, and the hexavalent chromium it left behind had since traveled into the groundwater. Hexavalent chromium gives humans cancer, trivalent chromium doesn’t, and cottage cheese converts the former to the latter.
Emeryville’s city manager of several decades tells me the cottage cheese story with obvious delight. I’m asking how Emeryville went from an industrial wasteland in 1975 to the tidy business suburb it is today. His answer is that cleaning up a century’s worth of toxic waste is not straightforward, and that the process of environmental remediation can be strange and labyrinthine. So strange that in certain moments and from certain angles, like a team spraying cottage cheese into the ground in 2004, the science looks like it’s descending into witchcraft.
I’m talking to the city manager because I’ve gotten off track. I do field work in Emeryville, supposedly organizational studies with the biotechnology companies that fill the city. People are bored and suspicious when I ask them about their industry work, and then they brighten when I ask them about how Emeryville used to be a dump. How 30 years ago, a trash compactor was blocks away from where the Pixar campus now stands, and green goo still oozes from some lots of land.
You can rarely fully un-poison poisoned land, and so there’s a matrix of half measures to navigate while cleaning up. You arrive at a factory abandoned decades ago and have no idea what’s in the ground. You do your best to find out what’s there, because different chemicals need to get treated in different ways. But very rarely is there just one toxic chemical in the ground, and the multiple chemicals are probably interacting with one another in additionally complicated ways. Lead or arsenic is different from lead and arsenic. The waste might also be leached into the soil, or into harder sediment, or, worst case, might have made its way into the groundwater. Sometimes you can put in tubes to vaporize chemicals. Sometimes you vacuum dirt out, treat it, and send it back in. Sometimes you put up a barrier to keep it from getting into the groundwater. Most often, you can’t meaningfully reduce the toxicity, so you dig up the dirt and send it to an incinerator. If all else fails, you just try to contain the waste by pouring a concrete cap on it, and/or create use restrictions that keep residences or schools or nursing homes off the ground floor.
It’s easy to forget the Environmental Protection Agency has only existed since 1970, and the science of toxic remediation is still a fairly new one—and it’s made all the more complicated by the difficulty of determining who has to do the cleaning up, and who decides when it’s cleaned up enough.
According to the origin story, matron saint Rachel Carson’s writing led to the formation of the EPA as a federal agency for pollution control. Then, color photos of wild trash landscapes like Valley of the Drums and Love Canal helped establish the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act in 1980, more commonly referred to as Superfund.
The Superfund program allowed the EPA to identify polluted sites, pursue responsible parties for the pollution, and oversee their environmental remediation. The polluted sites on its national priorities list are usually just called “Superfund sites.” But the Superfund sites are only the very dirtiest toxic messes in the United States, and they’re the only cleanups overseen by the EPA. There are only so many funds in the Superfund, and there are many more contaminated industrial sites in the United States beyond the 1,333 on the priority list as of March 2022. The Brownfields Program, launched by the EPA in 1995, was one solution to this problem.
Through the Brownfields Program, the EPA has parceled out smaller grants and loans for old industrial sites, but without standards for cleanup or significant oversight. It gave city and state governments the resources to cut deals with developers who would take on the burden of cleanup in exchange for tax breaks as they built new businesses on the properties. Emeryville became a textbook example and best-case scenario for how this program could play out. Now, it’s the big-box store capital of the Bay Area. Ikea and Targets are the devil’s bargain for getting toxic waste out, or most of it out.
The Brownfields Program is especially trusting toward business and developers as stewards of environmental responsibility. These, notably, are the types of actors responsible for the mess in the first place. Brownfields Program critics like the Center for Public Integrity point out that this allows developers to clean up with no federal oversight, no standards for cleanup, and no verification even that any work was done. The developer dictates the terms, and “the result is a level of trust unheard of in other contexts.” The EPA has bigger Superfund fish to fry, and some of the arsenic and chromium gone is better than none of it.
And it’s true that these unheard-of levels of trust have resulted in shenanigans. Residents of Emeryville’s neighbor Richmond woke one recent morning to a pile of PCB-contaminated dirt sitting under a tarp in an empty lot near homes and an elementary school. An Emeryville developer sent the dirt to the now fallow site of the old Pixar headquarters. Pixar was originally founded in Richmond and later lured to developer-friendly Emeryville, and the irony was not lost on Richmond resident Edie Alderette-Sellers, who lived nearby: “Emeryville took Pixar out of Richmond and literally shipped back to us toxic soil. That’s how it feels. It’s a real kick in the teeth,”as she told the East Bay Express. Local muckrakers seem to keep their eyes peeled for sinister colors at construction sites. A local blog posted pictures in February 2020 of a Lennar construction site with green goo seeping out of the ground. There are more stories I’ve been told and also told not to repeat. It’s a mess.
What’s worse is that this mess is visible only because Emeryville has done way more than its neighbors to clean up its old industrial sites. Much of San Francisco’s East Bay was once covered in industrial warehouses just like Emeryville’s, and those brave enough to browse the EPA’s interactive map will find the rest of the East Bay (and many other American cities) have just as much toxic waste to deal with. Emeryville is the best-case scenario, a scenario where a lot of hazardous waste gets left in the ground and “neoliberal hellscapes” get paved on top.
If you Google “Emeryville cottage cheese,” you’ll find the story in a few write-ups over the past decade and a half, and I’ve wondered about its fundamental appeal. I think there’s something more to the story than its zaniness. The cottage cheese is cheap, simple, sweet; comes from a nice cow farm in Marin; and is 95 percent effective. It feels hopeful. It’s a special tiny miracle to fix something so ugly and messy with something so pure when, more often, old lead and arsenic and mercury get paved over with concrete caps for the time being, or sent to incinerators in Texas, or hidden under tarps in Richmond—because more often, we have to live in the messes we make.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.