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Pulling a Reverse Google Street View

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The interior of Hangar One, which is the world's largest freestanding structure as well as a superfund site.

How many times a day do you use a Google service? We search, we translate, we map, we email. The trade-off is that Google gets access to our personal virtual space and private affairs. They’ve probably come to know more about any one of us than the NSA. Try getting in touch with them. You start by googling “Google.” Right? You’ll find that there is a phone number for “customer service” and one for “media contact.” You’ll find an email address that journalists are advised to use to query Google. I began by sending an email, using my Google Gmail account. I explained the usual five W’s and in this case, the how, of using a 50-foot aerial boom lift to make landscape pictures of Superfund sites, one of which lies beneath Google’s Quad Campus.

The Comprehensive Environmental Reclamation Compensation and Liability Act of 1983, commonly known as Superfund, was enacted to allow the EPA to go after polluters of America’s toxic lands and manage the remediation of those lands. For my upcoming story for National Geographic, I followed the Superfund trail to Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, Montana, Washington, Oklahoma, and Colorado. I wound up at the place with the highest concentration of contaminated toxic Superfund sites in the country. Guess where that is? I thought somewhere in New Jersey (sorry New Jersey), but it is Silicon Valley.

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A view of Google’s Quad Campus as seen through the viewfinder 50 feet up on a boom lift.

Starting in the 1970s, early tech pioneers were washing silicon wafers there starting in the 1970s using a solvent that spilled, leaked, and was not properly disposed of. It created a vast toxic plume underground—known as the MEW study site—in the city of Mountain View, California, the heart of Silicon Valley. Under Superfund, 1,000 pump-and-treat stations were installed in the MEW as an attempt to clean below the heavily developed land. I was told that it’s like getting all of the water from a wet sponge. It’s impossible. Today, any buildings constructed in the MEW are required to be designed to stop the toxic vapors from entering the architecture.

Wafers are being grown and washed in China and India now. The tech industry that occupies Silicon Valley today has little to do with silicon and manufacturing but it is still headquarters for many tech giants, involved in so much that consumes our modern lives—largely the Internet and social media. Key tenants of the MEW today are Symantec and Google. Google’s Quad Campus is located on an active site where vapor intrusion has recently occurred, which poses a real concern for people living and working there.

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A silicon growing and wafer manufacturing plant that is no longer in use located next to Google’s Quad complex, which can be seen behind the silicon plant.

Remember that Google and Symantec did not cause this problem of toxic pollution. When I learned that Google was right there, smack in the heart of the plume, I thought this is the picture that is going to bring my story full circle; from the lead mines of Oklahoma that armed America’s military in WWII, to the present day when our virtual connection to place gives us a false sense of being at a distance from lands polluted in the past. The reality is that one-in-four people live within a mile of a hazardous waste site. The Quad Campus was a clear example of that.

Google did not reply to my email so I dialed the phone number and left a message. They did not return my call. I called Google’s customer service number and waited on hold for an hour with a recorded message that assured that my call was important to them. I tried that twice more at different times of day and nobody answered. I dialed again and stayed on the line for four hours. Nothing. (Out of curiosity I wanted to see how long it would take to get someone on the phone at the NSA. I found phone numbers readily available online. I dialed one for public affairs and a person answered on the second ring.) I tried to reach Google through friends and relatives with contacts there. Nada. I called my editor and suggested that he send an email so it would come from an official National Geographic address. Almost immediately a reply came from the “Google Press Team.” The two-sentence reply began, “Thanks for reaching out … unfortunately we won’t be able to accommodate your request.” For all I know this could have been generated by a Google-bot. Good journalism doesn’t stop at “no.” We discussed it and granted, without cooperation from the almighty Oz, a difficult photo was going to be made even more so, but we had to try.

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Hangar One at Moffett Field was recently leased to a Google subsidiary, Planetary Ventures.

When my assistant and I arrived at the MEW in Mountain View, California, we found that places to set the boom up off private lands were limited. It became clear we would have to pull a reverse Street View on Google and commandeer a lane of traffic. Mountain View city staff was terrific. They gave us permits and openly discussed the situation of toxic lands there. They provided us with lane closure signs and cones and lessons on how to properly and safely shut down a lane of traffic during rush hour.

With the boom’s articulating arm unfolding like some Disney transformer with a human in its clutches, up I went. I topped out and didn’t like the view. We’d have to move. After trying several curbside spots, we set up in a place that put us as close as possible to the Quad Campus buildings. Again the view was lacking.

Half a dozen uniformed Google security agents held a Google hangout in the parking lot directing their gaze up at me. I gave it nearly two hours up there hoping for a little magic or a stroke of luck to help the picture. Nothing doing. I started the descent. When I reached the ground, a Google self-driving car sped around the corner. Its navigational whirligig spinning on the rooftop, it stopped for several seconds. I had the 50-foot boom, but Google had the self-driving car … snapping pictures?

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The interior of Hangar One, which is the world’s largest freestanding structure as well as a Superfund site.

We packed it up and headed toward nearby Moffett Field for an appointment to boom-up on the inside of Hangar One, the world’s largest freestanding structure, also a Superfund site. Just before we arrived in California, news was announced that Google had leased the hangar, the field, and most of the under-funded Ames Research Center from NASA. When we arrived at the gate, a Tesla was purring in front of us. The gate opened. The sleek car sped forward to a waiting private jet. Sergey Brin hopped out with roller blades over his shoulder and off he jetted. I pondered how Hangar One might be utilized by its new tenant. Perhaps as a Google play pen, a drone R&D center, or a private airfield?

Writing this over a cup of morning coffee, I’m trying to compose an ending. How does this story end? For now it doesn’t. Google is growing beyond proportions we can fathom. And I’m still using their services.

Fritz Hoffmann is known for documentary style narratives that portray society, culture, the environment and global economics. He is currently working on his eleventh story for National Geographic magazine. See more of Fritz Hoffmann’s work on his website and follow him on Instagram.

Related story: Boom With a View

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