Toxic Town

Toxic Town: IBM, Pollution, and Industrial Risks

Peter C. Little
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 264
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt9qffd0
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  • Book Info
    Toxic Town
    Book Description:

    In 1924, IBM built its first plant in Endicott, New York. Now, Endicott is a contested toxic waste site. With its landscape thoroughly contaminated by carcinogens, Endicott is the subject of one of the nation's largest corporate-state mitigation efforts. Yet despite the efforts of IBM and the U.S. government, Endicott residents remain skeptical that the mitigation systems employed were designed with their best interests at heart. InToxic Town,Peter C. Littletracks and critically diagnoses the experiences of Endicott residents as they learn to live with high-tech pollution, community transformation, scientific expertise, corporate-state power, and risk mitigation technologies. By weaving together the insights of anthropology, political ecology, disaster studies, and science and technology studies, the book explores questions of theoretical and practical import for understanding the politics of risk and the ironies of technological disaster response in a time when IBM'sstatedmission is to build a Smarter Planet.Little critically reflects on IBM's new corporate tagline, arguing for a political ecology of corporate social and environmental responsibility and accountability that places the social and environmental politics of risk mitigation front and center.Ultimately, Little argues that we will need much more than hollow corporate taglines, claims of corporate responsibility, and attempts to mitigate high-tech disasters to truly build a smarter planet.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-6451-0
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Figures and Tables
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. PREFACE
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  5. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. xvii-xx)
  6. List of Acronyms and Abbreviations
    (pp. xxi-xxi)
  7. 1 Down in Big Blue’s Toxic Plume in Upstate New York
    (pp. 1-15)

    In September 2008, I was doing fieldwork in Endicott, New York, the site of both IBM’s first manufacturing plant and a contentious U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund¹ site consisting of a 300-acre toxic plume of trichloroethylene (or TCE), which is a cancer-causing chlorine-based cleaning solvent heavily used by IBM to manufacture chipboards and other microelectronics. I was sitting down with Tonya, a resident of what is locally referred to as “the plume,” when I first sensed the need to take the concept of mitigation more seriously. Tonya was sitting on the edge of her couch and seemed excited to talk,...

  8. 2 The New Mitigation Landscape
    (pp. 16-34)

    If one looks closely enough, Endicott, New York, best known as the “birthplace of IBM,” is today a landscape of toxics mitigation technology. It has become a Computer Age ruin and a place of pollution repair. Venting systems with white plastic tubing running from basements to roofs are visible on nearly 500 houses and businesses in Endicott’s downtown area, and were all paid for by IBM. Many residents feel the area has become a taboo space and see it staying that way as long as the toxic plume lurks. The “plume”—a roughly 300-acre zone polluted by industrial toxic substances...

  9. 3 From Shoes to Computers to Vapor Mitigation Systems
    (pp. 35-62)

    Making sure I understood things properly, that I understood the significance of Endicott’s industrial history, I was told by one “plume resident” during an interview: “You know, Peter, Endicott is where IBM started? It all started right here.” I was reminded of this fact on several occasions, and no matter how many times I heard it, I still found it hard to believe that Endicott, a small village in western New York, was not only IBM’s birthplace, but also the place where some of the earliest computing technologies emerged to help create the “third industrial revolution” (McGraw 1997) and the...

  10. 4 Living the Tangle of Risk, Deindustrialization, and Community Transformation
    (pp. 63-96)

    Endicott’s IBM spill archive, located at the public repository in the George F. Johnson Memorial Library in downtown Endicott, contains four large shelves packed with fact sheets and technical reports, many of which are developed by private companies contracted by IBM and the NYSDEC to carry out the plethora of environmental and public health analyses for Endicott’s groundwater monitoring and remediation project. These reports and fact sheets are filled with monitoring well test data, soil gas sampling data, public health statistics, indoor air sampling findings, analytical summaries, addendums, memorandums, and very few public comment reports. What is not present among...

  11. 5 Post-Mitigation Skepticism and Frustration
    (pp. 97-117)

    While the majority of my fieldwork took place in Endicott, there was a “multisited” ethnographic component to the research (Marcus 1995). In early October 2008, I attended a two-day classroom training entitled “Vapor Intrusion Pathway: A Practical Guide” in Portland, Oregon, that was organized by the Interstate Technology and Regulatory Council (ITRC). Established in 1995, the ITRC is a state-led and government-funded¹ coalition made up of state and federal regulators, industry representatives, academics, and stakeholders working together “to achieve regulatory acceptance of innovative environmental technologies and approaches” (ITRC 2007). In this training I was told by one of the instructors...

  12. 6 Grassroots Action and Conflicted Environmental Justice
    (pp. 118-165)

    The IBM closure in 2002 and the increased public disclosure of IBM’s toxic legacy, especially TCE and the threat of vapor intrusion, led to the emergence of several local advocacy groups. This grassroots advocacy developed in the same way that other environmental health and anti-toxics movements (ATMs) have emerged: knowledge of toxic contamination enters into community health etiologies and becomes the grounds for community concern and action. First, plume residents Bernadette Patrick and Sharon Oxx formed a group called the Citizens Acting to Restore Endicott’s Environment (CARE) to petition legislators to help plume residents. The IBM contamination led Patrick and...

  13. 7 Citizens, Experts, and Emerging Vapor Intrusion Science and Policy
    (pp. 166-179)

    As an anthropologist and political ecologist engaged in vapor intrusion (VI) debates, I am interested in how the lay public and scientists and regulators come to know and understand these emerging debates. VI is one of many emerging sciences and technologies in which anthropology can intervene (Downey and Dumit 1997). It is a risk debate largely because of the “co-production” (Jasanoff 2004) of scientific knowledge and state intervention. According to Lenny Siegel, a leading VI activist and technical advisor to communities like Endicott coping with VI, there is a “rocket science” problem, as he puts it, that leaves many impacted...

  14. 8 Accounting for the Paradox of IBM’s “Smarter Planet”
    (pp. 180-196)

    Ultimately ethnographic fieldwork “is an educational experience all around. What is difficult is to decide what has been learned” (Geertz 2000 [1968]:37). It is easy to say that I have learned many things from spending time talking to residents of Endicott’s IBM plume. Deciding what to write about, what to cultivate, what to expose and attend to was no doubt a challenge. The journey from fieldwork to write-up is a winding road with unexpected curves and occasional dense fog, yet several ethnographic questions served as my guide on this twisting and uneven terrain: how do Endicott residents understand and talk...

  15. NOTES
    (pp. 197-208)
  16. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 209-232)
  17. INDEX
    (pp. 233-242)
  18. ABOUT THE AUTHOR
    (pp. 243-243)