I thought I was dying: My apartment was built on toxic waste

Ashley-Gjovik-with-blood-pressure-monitor, I thought I was dying: My apartment was built on toxic waste, Local News & Views
Ashley Gjovik is pictured here with one of many blood pressure monitors she used to monitor her vitals last year, after her first symptoms of illness prompted her to seek medical testing. Her blood pressure and heart rate monitoring revealed inexplicable fluctuations after moving into the new apartment, kicking off her hunt for an answer and eventual path to being an environmental justice advocate.

by Ashley Gjovik 

There’s another epidemic occurring today alongside COVID-19 – it’s an outbreak of new housing developments on toxic land and water with laissez-faire oversight. The SF Bay Area and Silicon Valley are two of the most polluted regions in the entire country, yet the paperwork often appears to be rushed through to build residences on toxic soil and groundwater. 

In some cases, there are claims the data was manipulated or ignored to reduce expenses and shorten project timelines. Some of these approvals and subsequent lawsuits include Hunters PointTreasure IslandPoint Isabel and the Richmond Zeneca site. 

While much recent media coverage has focused on the development of these future residential sites, one looming question remains open: What happens if these sites are approved with inadequate remediation plans and the residents experience health issues due to the hazardous materials?

I moved into a new apartment complex, the Santa Clara Square Apartments, in February 2020. I was living on a remediation site but didn’t know it until I was so sick that I thought I could be dying. Over the next seven months, I proceeded to live out the nightmare many feared following the bare-bones clean-up plans for sites like Hunters Point and Zeneca. 

After I realized the site could be causing my mystery illness, I hit brick wall after brick wall trying to get help. I expect none of the current residents actually know what they’re sitting on or what happened to me. I want to change that. I also want to shed light on the systemic failures I discovered and the extent that financial interests appear to be prioritized over public health by those in charge of these sites.  

My story 

This apartment complex had no physical or written appearance of danger from chemicals, other than a brief and vague note about the presence of “agricultural chemicals” buried towards the end of the “Resident Handbook.” Though I was in good health, I began experiencing chest pain, dizzy spells, palpitations and weakness within days of moving into my new apartment. 

I feared the worst and headed to the emergency room. Over the next few weeks, my condition only worsened, with bizarre muscle numbness and spasms and the onset of daily near-fainting spells where I would get so dizzy that I would have to immediately lie down, sometimes for hours, before I could regain balance.

I spoke with dozens of doctors who performed extensive testing to try to identify the cause of my sudden and worsening cardiac and neurological issues. The doctors were perplexed. While the tests showed my blood pressure, heart rate and other vitals were abnormal, no tests or imaging could identify why. 

Ashley-Gjoviks-heart-rate-monitor-before-and-after-moving-to-Santa-Clara-Square-Apartments-1400x679, I thought I was dying: My apartment was built on toxic waste, Local News & Views
After moving into Apartment #349 in the Santa Clara Square Apartments (SCSA), Ashley’s heart rate immediately decreased well below expected levels. Her doctors later explained to her that VOC exposure depresses the central nervous system and could cause exactly that type of report. Her heart rate returned to normal as soon as she moved out.

My doctors screened me for all sorts of severe, permanent and often fatal illnesses. The symptoms were so debilitating and unpredictable that I felt I had no control over my body. I really thought I could be dying. 

I bought books on coping with terminal illness; notified friends of the location of my will and power of attorney documentation. I slept with my phone by my bed in case I had to call 911 in the middle of the night. I was utterly terrified.

I spent the next six months on medical leave and disability, contemplating what my future would hold. I work full time as a program manager while attending law school to become a public interest attorney. But faced with an apparent severe long-term disability or even a fatal illness, I had to consider if I needed to quit my job and drop out of school – and what that would mean for my future. 

In September 2020 I stumbled upon the first hint of what was actually happening to me. At that time, the wildfires were burning and smoky air covered the Bay Area. I have asthma, so I tried to weatherproof my apartment, blocking all outside air from entering and running air purifiers. 

My indoor air quality monitors showed low particulate levels and everything looked great. However, shortly after, I started getting nosebleeds and hallucinations. I’d wake up almost every night thinking there were massive earthquakes shaking my bed.

A friend suggested I check if carbon monoxide might be causing hallucinations. I checked a new, more advanced air quality monitor and, to my surprise, the monitor showed very high levels of something called “tVOCs.” I didn’t know what that meant, but I noticed something compelling. 

Air-quality-monitor-overall-pollution-by-Ashley-Gjovik, I thought I was dying: My apartment was built on toxic waste, Local News & Views
Ashley purchased numerous air quality monitors to be able to monitor the “tVOCs” in her apartment. She quickly found a long history of VOCs in the soil and groundwater on her apartment’s property as well as at nearby sites, including several EPA Superfund sites less than a mile away.

One of my most bizarre symptoms since moving in was waking up every few weeks exactly at 3 a.m. and feeling like I was choking and going to vomit. When I looked, the “tVOCs” on my monitor spiked exactly at 3 a.m. I also noticed the tVOCs seemed to rise and fall at different times of the day when I was having the worst symptoms. I began to think that there was an important correlation between this data and my symptoms.

Air-quality-monitor-tVOC-spike-at-3-am-Santa-Clara-Square-Apartments-by-Ashley-Gjovik, I thought I was dying: My apartment was built on toxic waste, Local News & Views
The air quality monitor read that the VOCs repeatedly spiked exactly at 3 a.m. each night – correlating directly to her sudden 3 a.m. feelings of nausea and choking.

I spent the next few days buying more air quality monitors for additional data points, all of which showed high levels of tVOCs, rising and falling. I contacted my property manager, Irvine Company, about my concerns. Irvine Company knew I had been sick and was also helping me investigate the “earthquakes.”

I told them about the high tVOCs and that I thought it could be causing my health issues and the earthquake hallucinations. I asked them to investigate, but they refused to help. 

Within a few days, I learned that Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are high vapor pressure compounds emitted as gases, and “tVOCs” are the total amount of VOCs present in a certain location. I learned from reading government documentation that unexpectedly high levels of tVOCs, especially when their emissions fluctuate, can be caused by something called “vapor intrusion,” which is when solvents and other hazardous materials are in the ground – soil or water – and as they evaporate, the vapors rise up and “intrude” into buildings. 

I was vaguely aware of the EPA Superfund program and knew there were sites all over Silicon Valley, so I started searching online to see the details of the sites closest to me. I found the environmental impact report for the property where I was living, which is when things really got eerie. 

Apparently, the 1,800-unit Santa Clara Square apartment complex was built on industrially zoned land that required a clean-up – remediation – plan authorized by the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC). The site development notice stated, “Environmental investigations at the site have shown the presence of arsenic, lead and pesticides in shallow soils related to historical agricultural use.” 

The clean-up activities seemed to focus only on these specific contaminants. Per the report submitted to DTSC, most of the contaminants were apparently not removed as part of clean-up, but instead kept on-site. Thousands of cubic yards of hazardous soil were buried under the parking garages in “containment cells.” They also wrote that they left toxic soil around certain trees for “1.5 times the tree canopy width” and simply put fabric on top of the toxic soil with “3 inches of clean soil or mulch.” 

There were also land use restrictions required by the government for the garages which were now the ceiling of the “containment cells” and the trees with toxic soil, which they called “TPZs.” These areas, just yards away from me, were not to be used for “residential human habitation,” hospitals, schools or day cares. 

Tree-Protection-Zone-map-Santa-Clara-Square-Apartments-toxic-soil-cy-Ashley-Gjovik-1400x906, I thought I was dying: My apartment was built on toxic waste, Local News & Views
“My beautiful view became haunting.” The Department of Toxic Substances Control approved certain areas of the SCSA as “Tree Protection Zones” – areas specifically authorized to keep toxic soil on site and only protected by a thin fabric and a few inches of much.

I was horrified to learn all of these facts and then see maps of the site with my apartment unit right above areas with the bright red “Class 1 hazardous waste” shading and to know the redwood trees outside my window were surrounded by hazardous soil. My beautiful view became haunting.

At that point, I started calling lawyers and doctors and reporting my concerns to government agencies. I knew the situation was likely going to be complicated and that the tVOC readings on my personal monitors were not going to be conclusive on their own, but my gut told me something was terribly wrong. 

I’ll spoil the surprise – if there is any – and tell you now: I never got an answer to what happened to me, nor was I able to get anyone in charge to earnestly investigate. I only have more questions. Let my situation illustrate all the ways the system is currently set up to support financial interests instead of public health. 

Will the property owner help?

I sent Irvine Company numerous emails and phone calls pleading for help. The day I found the high tVOCs I wrote, “I think my apartment might be poisoning me” and sent a description of “sick building syndrome,” pointing out that I’ve been experiencing almost all of those symptoms since moving in. 

That day, I asked Irvine to investigate and test to identify which VOCs were causing the issues and provide guidance on how to mitigate the exposure. I talked to the service manager on the phone and stressed the same message. 

“The chemicals are still pouring out full blast. I felt so terribly sick, I’ve ended up sitting in the outdoor courtyard with [my dog] waiting for it to hopefully stop tonight … [We] need a better plan than [me] sleeping outdoors.”

Two days later after no response I wrote, “I’m sitting by an open window right now trying to catch my breath. I feel like I’m choking.” I sent them screenshots and photos of the air monitor readings, again asking for help. More days passed with no response. 

One night was so bad I ended up sleeping outside on a community lounge chair out of desperation. At 2 a.m., I wrote them again: “The chemicals are still pouring out full blast. I felt so terribly sick, I’ve ended up sitting in the outdoor courtyard with [my dog] waiting for it to hopefully stop tonight … [We] need a better plan than [me] sleeping outdoors.”

The general manager for the complex finally responded: “We had PGE out on Friday and they tested the surrounding stairwells, the area of your apartment home on the [exteriors as] well [as your] building, and there are no gas leaks or chemical spills. As of now, there is no evidence suggesting that your apartment home is unsafe. What are you wanting to do at this point? If you feel that your health and safety are in jeopardy you need to call 9-1-1 or emergency service.” 

I read her message and was like, “You have to be kidding me.” However, a few days after I found the environmental impact report and started notifying agencies of my concerns, Irvine Company did make a suspiciously unsolicited offer to let me break my lease – with nearly a year remaining – and move out without penalty. It seemed bizarre that they would email me out of nowhere offering to let me leave without paying the $7,500 penalty to break my lease. 

Irvine Company then rented out my unit with only eight days of turn-around, despite my protests demanding an investigation. They also hired a hazardous waste public relations consultant, presumably to try to get me to let the issue go. 

The consultant promoted herself as “one of the state’s leading public affairs strategists for redevelopment of property in the Bay Area,” but within a couple of days, she seemed convinced something bad was going on in my apartment and started requesting the company to investigate as well. 

After her attempts, she said they stopped giving her updates. She said twice, in writing, “It sure seems something is going on [in your apartment].” 

Ashley-Gjovik-unit-on-top-of-Class-1-hazardous-materials-1400x788, I thought I was dying: My apartment was built on toxic waste, Local News & Views
Grading-and-building-plans-showing-Class-1-hazardous-materials-beneath-Santa-Clara-Square-Apartments-by-California-DTSC-cy-Ashley-Gjovik-1400x938, I thought I was dying: My apartment was built on toxic waste, Local News & Views
Roux-sidewall-sampling-locations-Class-1-hazardous-material-at-Santa-Clara-Square-Apartments-by-Ashley-Gjovik-1400x900, I thought I was dying: My apartment was built on toxic waste, Local News & Views
Several maps of the Santa Clara Square Apartments area show grading and remediation plans along with soil sampling sites mapped by the property manager, Irvine Co., the developer, Roux, Inc., and the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC). In each of the first two maps, the areas lined in red are sites contaminated by “Class 1” hazardous materials. In the first photograph, you can see that Ashley’s apartment, circled and labelled “#349,” is right on top of a Class 1 site. Considering Ashley’s symptoms and relief of those symptoms upon moving, it is very likely the remediation plans were faulty or inadequate or, as is claimed by Dr. Ahimsa Porter Sumchai to be the case with Hunters Point and Treasure Island – totally impossible.

The consultant introduced herself to me saying, “I would be happy to talk with you about the steps that were taken to ready the site for the community and residential land use.” And I was like, “How on earth did you know I was looking into that?” 

I also found it strange that I had not told Irvine Company that I discovered the environmental impact report, yet Irvine Company seemed to have found out I knew and proactively reached out to me about it via the consultant.

At one point, Irvine Company communicated through the consultant that they may do some testing, but only after they found out I was bringing in an industrial hygienist of my own. Both the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) and the consultant told me they never heard if Irvine Company actually did any testing or not. 

I did try to do my own testing, but it was incredibly expensive and turned out to be insufficient. I wanted to get some formal data in the brief time before I moved out, so I hired an industrial hygienist to sample the indoor air and some of the topsoil. Despite the $1,555 I had to pay for it, the results were inconclusive. Apparently a different test – a “summa canister” – over a longer period of time would have been better. 

Then, through searching and public records requests, I found a number of reported issues at Irvine Company sites in the area. First, a report from 2019, where one of my neighbors at the same complex complained about blue tap water and paid for a private lab test showing “very high” levels of lead, copper and other contaminants in the water. 

I found no records of any actions taken by Irvine Company to address that report. Next, I found an article from 2014 stating Irvine Company appeared to offer a quid pro quo to the Santa Clara city government as part of another development agreement for a site nearby, stating, “If the city would approve the … project” and “resolve litigation challenges,” then “Irvine would donate one million dollars” to an unrelated city project. 

Then, I found an article about another nearby Irvine Company site under litigation against the city of Sunnyvale over an incomplete environmental assessment report. So, my situation didn’t sound like a one-off, even with this specific company. 

In 2014 Irvine Company appeared to offer a quid pro quo to the Santa Clara city government as part of another development agreement for a site nearby, stating, “If the city would approve the … project” and “resolve litigation challenges,” then “Irvine would donate one million dollars” to an unrelated city project. 

It’s so broken that it’s up to the property owner to test and confirm there’s an issue in these situations – if they suspect the property could be making a tenant sick, it does not seem to be in their financial interest to actually confirm that suspicion. I also realized how intimidating, if not impossible, it is for an individual to go up against these big, powerful companies.

Will the agency in charge help?

When I complained to DTSC about the VOCs in my apartment, the site manager initially offered to look into it. She admitted it sounded like my health issues were the result of VOC fumes in my unit, even putting in writing, “It seems like something is happening in your unit.”

She said she contacted the Irvine Company’s environmental attorneys to suggest testing, but quickly retreated, saying there was actually nothing she could do to help me. She wrote, “I’m not trying to shut down on you. We’ve been working collaboratively with our contacts at the Irvine Company. And they’ve started to push back that if the problem isn’t related to the soil or groundwater contamination, that we [DTSC] don’t have authority.” 

It was my understanding from our phone calls that DTSC only had authority over the chemicals that were listed as “contaminants of concern” in the Environmental Assessment Report, none of which were VOCs. 

Then the DTSC manager tried to tell me that she suspected the VOCs were “coming from an indoor source, such as construction materials or [industrial] cleaning products.” I kept asking if that was true, then who had authority over that type of issue. I never got a clear answer, other than DTSC saying “not us.” 

I tried asking local indoor air and public health agencies, but they said the same: “Not us.” This was just the beginning of the story with DTSC. 

The developer, Roux, Inc., claimed in their second clean-up completion report that “no volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in soil vapor were identified as COCs at the Site” and that “several different VOCs were detected in soil vapor samples [but well] below their respective [screening levels].” That wasn’t even accurate according to the other reports! 

Then they said, “Several VOCs were detected in groundwater beneath the site, but they were all below their applicable screening levels for risk to indoor air.” The EIR states no VOCs pose a “significant risk with respect to potential vapor intrusions issues.” Based on what I discovered next, this all appeared to be some expert wordsmithing and spin, possibly to avoid addressing data about onsite chemicals that would have made the clean-up much more costly. 

In an environmental impact report conducted on the SCSA site by Impact Sciences, a firm hired by property manager Irvine Company, the report claims that no VOCs pose a “significant risk with respect to potential vapor intrusions issues.” Impact Sciences also makes it clear the development and testing of the site were done on an “expedited schedule.” What kind of costs were cut and timeframes shortened at this toxic site in the name of developer dollars?

Roux-soil-vapor-sampling-sites-in-Santa-Clara-Square-Apartments-cy-Ashley-Gjovik-1-1400x900, I thought I was dying: My apartment was built on toxic waste, Local News & Views
In an environmental impact report conducted on the SCSA site by Impact Sciences, a firm hired by property manager Irvine Company, the report claims that no VOCs pose a “significant risk with respect to potential vapor intrusions issues.” Impact Sciences also makes it clear the development and testing of the site were done on an “expedited schedule.” What kind of costs were cut and timeframes shortened at this toxic site in the name of developer dollars?

In reading the EIR (Environmental Impact Report) response plan and thousands of pages of reports, I quickly noticed there seemed to be many VOCs found on site. The reports even said the VOCs were above residential limits and, in some cases, even above vapor intrusion risk levels. 

When I first presented this to the DTSC manager, she acknowledged it is unusual to have chemicals above residential limits not considered contaminants of concern, saying, “In general, if the chemicals are present at the subsurface at concentrations exceeding residential levels, they would typically be considered contaminants of concern.”

A few of the reports tried to explain why several specific VOCs weren’t part of the clean-up plan, saying samples were only found in a couple spots or just a general statement that they do not believe the chemical will create a risk to public health. However, I couldn’t find any explanations for some of the chemicals. 

I was thinking: “If you don’t want me to be worried about this chemical’s impact to my health, you should tell me exactly why it wasn’t included in the clean-up despite being above residential limits.” All I heard was crickets and I got more suspicious. 

One of the chemicals, vinyl chloride, was found above vapor intrusion risk levels, with no explanation that I could find as to why it was not included in the remediation plan. In fact, vinyl chloride is a breakdown product of the contaminants at one of the Superfund sites uphill from my apartment. 

When I asked DTSC for reasoning as to why the VOCs weren’t part of the clean-up plan, I never got a straight response. I began to get very worried about the integrity of everything that was approved. I raised additional questions to DTSC. 

It appeared the least amount of pre-excavation testing, if any, was done on the property directly under my apartment building. Further, after excavation, Roux said they did no post-excavation testing on the remaining soil. I kept asking why so little testing was done there. I asked why conclusive statements were being made about my apartment unit based on what appeared to be very little data. I never got a straight answer. 

I asked about a rogue “500-gallon underground storage tank” filled or previously filled with an unknown chemical. Apparently, no one knows where it is under the property, though it was expected to be slightly uphill from my unit. I asked if that could be under my unit or leaking under my unit. No answer. 

I asked why Roux and Irvine Company apparently planned to install a vapor intrusion mitigation system beneath one of the buildings, and why they originally planned for four buildings though the rest were cancelled mid-way. 

The completion report said, “While not an environmental remedy, because there are no significant risks, a VIMS consisting of a vapor barrier and a sub-slab venting system has been designed and installed.” Installing these apparently could cost millions of dollars. It’s curious to me that Roux would plan to build four VIMS, or even build one, if they really thought VOCs were not an issue. 

I argued back and forth with DTSC for months about next steps. At several points, she told me if I could give them proof of chemicals in my body and apartment that could cause my symptoms and be linked to the chemicals on site, then they “can continue to investigate further.” 

One of the doctors even wrote in the visit notes that she recommended the government look into the VOCs in the soil and groundwater as the potential cause for my VOC exposure and subsequent illness.

I kept pushing back that they were asking a normal resident to pay for and perform seemingly industrial testing. I was also very concerned that a government agency seemed to be asking for my medical records. At one point they said they were happy to talk directly with one of my doctors. WTF. 

Despite all this complexity, a DTSC press release described the Santa Clara Square project as “fast-track[ed]” and that the department worked on “an accelerated schedule to help the developer meet certain deadlines.” Impact Sciences, the firm that Irvine Company hired to create the final environmental impact report, also wrote on their public website that the final environmental assessment report for the Santa Clara Square Apartments was “completed on a highly expedited schedule.” 

When I inquired to DTSC about what fast-tracking means, they told me it’s not a term that they “typically use.” I then shared their own press release with DTSC, and they seemed to be surprised by it. Further, I found the Santa Clara Planning Commission meeting notes which state the commission asked Irvine Company to “proceed with construction as expeditiously as possible in contrast to utilizing the full-term length of the [development] agreement.”

Can doctors help?

I saw two doctors who specialize in chemical exposure, and they both decided that based on the timeline of my illness, the VOC readings in my unit and my specific symptoms, that my mystery illness sounded like symptoms of VOC exposure. 

One of the doctors even wrote in the visit notes that she recommended the government look into the VOCs in the soil and groundwater as the potential cause for my VOC exposure and subsequent illness. I gave in and shared her note with DTSC, but apparently the doctor’s recommendation was insufficient to make them act despite my begrudging acquiescence in sharing private medical data. 

Can other agencies help?

I talked to the city, county and state health departments. I talked to the planning and code enforcement agencies. I talked with several of the California EPA agencies. I’ve also been talking with the federal EPA. All of the agencies that did respond said the only agency who can act is DTSC. Otherwise, the property manager must act on their own initiative. 

Many of these agency employees I talked to said over the phone said that they were concerned to hear about the conditions of the site and risk to the community and they offered apologies for not being able to help. 

I talked to the federal EPA and state water boards regarding the Superfund site uphill from my apartment. They said they were confident I was not impacted by the contamination from that site, despite the historical chemical plume under the apartment’s property. I asked them if they would do testing from a groundwater well closer to the location of my apartment – they hadn’t for many years – but they said no. 

Synertek-VOC-plume-Santa-Clara-1974-1985-cy-Ashley-Gjovik, I thought I was dying: My apartment was built on toxic waste, Local News & Views
From 1974-1985, Synertek, Inc., leased the area directly uphill from where the Santa Clara Square Apartments currently stand. Synertek manufactured semiconductors, crucial to the production of microchips for computers and other technologies. The manufacturing involved highly toxic chemicals, and several tanks stored underground on site leaked VOCs into the groundwater, contaminating the soil around the area. In 1987, the area was deemed a Superfund site by the Environmental Protection Agency. In spite of this, or the VOCs known to be on site of the SCSA property, the DTSC did not make VOCs a part of their remediation plan for the apartments, further increasing Ashley’s concern about the integrity of DTSC, the developer, property manager and City of Santa Clara.

When I asked generally if there was a way for someone to test one of the groundwater wells near my apartment to see what could be under my apartment since there’s so many chemical release sites nearby, they said only Irvine Co. could do so. 

Will the city help?

I wrote and left voicemails with the mayor of Santa Clara and the district representative for the property, explaining what happened and asking for help. I received no response for five weeks. I finally received a response and will meet with the mayor in April.

I wonder – do they even want to help me? On top of the city’s request for Irvine Company to expedite development, I found additional reports that make me worry the city will quickly side with Irvine Company. 

In Irvine Company’s pitch to the Santa Clara City Council, in addition to other benefits, they promoted the increased valuation of the property for tax purposes by $1.6 billion. Apparently, they expected the city would make over $1.5 million every year in new tax revenue from the site. Irvine’s presentation told the City Council they would receive more than $50 million in fees and benefits to the City of Santa Clara as result of the development agreement. The pitch also boasted over 10,000 new jobs.

There’s a housing crisis in Silicon Valley. Not all developers have the money to invest in cleaning up sites and building large-scale developments. Irvine Company is one of the few who can. In addition, an influx of that much money and jobs must be very enticing for a city council.

Can the legal system help?

I reached out to environmental attorneys. It quickly became an issue that my lease agreement included litigation and class action waivers. I was also advised that it is extremely difficult to pursue the default lawsuit for what I experienced in these types of situations, a “toxic tort,” especially against a powerful company with deep pockets like Irvine Company.

The owner, Donald Bren, is reportedly worth $15.3 billion. Beyond that, I was advised that court actions to force DTSC to act after the fact are rarely successful.

Some familiar with Irvine Company warned me that the company can be highly litigious, and if I fought them on this issue, it would be an uphill battle the entire way. As such, I was also advised not to warn my neighbors, since the company may try to retaliate. 

I was faced with so many walls and dead ends and no real solution at the end. I kept asking myself, how do people facing poverty have any chance to advocate for themselves? How do Black and Brown people have any chance of being heard when they might face bias and discrimination at every point along the way? 

This was one of the hardest parts – I desperately wanted to warn my neighbors and tell everyone what I found. I believed the warning and took the advice because of a few previous experiences with Irvine Company, including the bizarre and mandatory class action and litigation waivers. 

After discovering all this information about the property, my previous interactions with them and all the warnings I was given by folks who knew of their reputation, I realized I had no idea what Irvine Company was actually capable of. However, I refuse to stay silent. 

This article is my first public statement on what happened, and I’m doing it despite my fear of retaliation, because I am deeply worried about the health and safety of the folks living on that property and the apparent systemic failures in preventing and addressing these types of issues. 

Better, but no help

I moved out of the Santa Clara apartment two weeks after the email from Irvine Company letting me break my lease. My health seemed to return to normal within a week. No more fainting spells, chest pain, numbness or the like. 

I now live in San Francisco and continue my fight over what happened to me in Santa Clara. I’m also starting to study environmental law so I can advocate for others harmed by these types of situations. 

So, what made me sick? While in the end everyone agreed it was VOCs, I may never know for certain if it was the chemicals in the soil or groundwater and, if so, which ones.

We need a better system. My story does not bode well for the recent approvals of laissez-faire remediation plans across the Bay Area. We all know who will be most impacted by these types of sites. It was not lost on me for a moment that my experience dealing with this issue was going to result in a best-case scenario ending because of how much privilege and how many resources I have. 

I was faced with so many walls and dead ends and no real solution at the end. I kept asking myself, how do people facing poverty have any chance to advocate for themselves? How do Black and Brown people have any chance of being heard when they might face bias and discrimination at every point along the way? 

I knew that if I couldn’t find a solution, there’s no way these folks would. It’s well known now that toxic waste sites are often located near low-income and racial and ethnic minority communities. So, these folks are more likely to suffer from these issues and have fewer resources to deal with the issues when they face them. It was the moment I really started to understand environmental justice.

What can be done to address the situation? From my experience, I think in the near term we need to put an enormous amount of pressure on the city councils approving these sites. With the current process for dealing with issues, it seems whatever is approved by these cities will be binding on their community for generations to come. 

I emailed the Richmond City Council saying as much before they proceeded to approve the Zeneca site – an action for which they are currently being sued by environmental and community groups.

I also wish everyday people were better equipped to understand environmental exposure with tools to empower them to access data about the specific environments around them. I want people to be able to efficiently identify potential sources of chemical exposure and know the right agency and representative to call if they want to learn more about nearby sites. 

I’m working on a project to create a portal for this now and I’m really looking forward to launching it. I wish I had these tools and this knowledge last year. 

We need to re-think the general oversight of these sites in the SF Bay Area. There are so many of these sites and there seems to be very little accountability. Maybe it’s due to resource constraints. I do want to believe most people are acting in good faith, but something needs to change. 

The toxicity of the land coupled with seemingly blind support of financial interests really seems to have become a public health hazard with the worst impact on our already-marginalized communities.

Ashley Gjovik is an advocate for human rights and civil liberties, including healthy environments. She is currently a law student studying public interest law and policy. Ashley can be reached at agjovik@icloud.com.

Update

Could thousands more be sick from chemical exposure? To learn more, visit the new chemical exposure education website Ashley has launched here: whatsintheair.org.