IBM Leaving Town, But Still On Hook For Environmental Clean Up

Oct 21, 2014

The groundwater sitting below IBM’s massive campus in Essex Junction still bears the chemical stains of the plant’s past. The company announced this week its selling the plant , but it still bears responsibility for the clean-up.

The offending compound is called TCE – short for tetrachloroethylene – and back in the 50s, 60s and 70s, IBM used it by the truckload. David Mears, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, says TCE turned out to be toxic stuff.

“It’s the longer term risks of exposure that are more significant, that even at low levels some of the chemicals are found to pose carcinogenic risks,” Mears says.

But no one knew that back when IBM was using the solution to clean components used in the manufacture of its products. During the decades the company was using TCE, a good deal of it found its way into the ground, either through outright spills, or through corroded piping.

By the time IBM and state and federal regulators identified the environmental threat, the damage had been done.

Mears says the contamination had to be cleaned up.

“There’s a risk that if you don’t pull up the groundwater, treat it and remove the chemicals, that the chemicals will spread off site. They’ll either get into nearby streams, depending on the depth of it. Or it may come up and – they use the term called volatilize – go into the air and pose a risk to people in terms of breathing it,” Mears says.

Two decades ago, IBM inked a corrective action plan with the EPA. And it spent millions of dollars to install underground pumps that pull groundwater from below, remove the TCE, and deposit the treated water back into the earth.

IBM has operated those pumps ever since they were installed in the late 1980s and early 1990s. And the company will continue to be responsible for the remediation in the future, even though it will no longer own the plant that contaminated the water.

According to a company spokesman, IBM will retain responsibility for a remediation project that could last decades, even after it signs over ownership of the facility to GlobalFoundries.

Mears says there are numerous contaminated sites underneath, and he says some are nearly clean.

“Some of them are more complex … just because the subsurface geology is fairly complicated… So yes, it may be decades before these things are completely done with their job,” Mears says.

Mears says IBM has done an admirable job with the clean-up work. He says he had yet to parse the terms of the deal between IBM and GlobalFoundries.

“I look forward to working with them over the next couple weeks to make sure those transitions happen effectively,” Mears says.

Federal regulators still have to approve the proposed deal for the Essex Junction plant and another IBM facility in New York.