“It’s kinda like the Parthenon now, it’s a testament to something…”
—Nick Bongiorno, former IBM temp worker and activist
The IBM country club on a hill overlooking Endicott, New York has been empty for thirteen years. Now beyond repair, it was once abuzz with the activity of some 14,000 IBMers and their families. There were basketball games, swimming pools, a bar, a stage, banquet halls, guest rooms, and a golf course, all open to the thousands of IBM employees in Endicott. This was the town where, in 1911, International Business Machines was born.
IBM’s Plant Number One manufactured punch-card tabulators in downtown Endicott. Then came typewriters, printers, and the System/360 computer, after which a parade of ever-newer models were made. For decades, IBM dominated the computer industry. It was not until 1996 that their market value was surpassed by Microsoft. They have since fallen far down the ladder: these days, IBM is only the ninth-largest tech company in the world. They have gotten out of the messy business of making things and are now, primarily, a software and services company. In 2002, after more than ninety years, IBM ceased manufacturing in Endicott.
Today, the IBM country club is utterly defaced. Defaced by the freeze and thaw of water, and the flooding of the Susquehanna River. Defaced by teenagers cycling through in the night, the keepers of no-man’s land. This is where they come to get high and destroy the memory of IBM, their father’s house. Graffiti on an unbroken window says Did You Ever Love Me? in searing pink paint.
Suck Me Softly, it says.
In the old brick rooming house, white columns have fallen against the floor. The fireplace is stuffed with saplings and branches; it looks wild and evil. Stiff palatial curtains remain. There are pellets of rat shit on the ground and moss grows across the maroon carpeting. The pink and green wallpaper peels and blooms like wild roses. On the floor is a crumpled up brochure from 1954. “IBM Family Day” for “Plant Employees,” it says, on a placard held up by a smiling clown. After pie-eating contests and a softball game, at 6 p.m. the IBM band would play.
In 2006, the Susquehanna River rose through the rooms, easily ripping at their seams and fixtures, a flowing push against the old giant. Named “Oyster River” by the Lenape people, the Susquehanna is one of the country’s most polluted. It came to know nuclear meltdown from Three Mile Island, and it knew coal and fertilizer and feces, before it came into the club. Then the teenagers charged against the broken surfaces.
In the locker room there are still four inches of green soap in the dispenser but the porcelain toilets are smashed or filled with shit. The mirrors have upside-down crosses and
With language learned from horror movies, the trespassers hack away at Big Blue’s shadow. A fuck you, from the town to IBM. A mutual fuck you, from IBM to the town.
It started beneath a swath of train tracks and poured gravel beside Building 18, where circuit boards were made. It formed from repeated spills of volatile organic compounds used in the degreasing and cleaning of microchips. In 1978, 1.75 million gallons of wastewater were released. That same year, 4,100 gallons of liquid solvents, including trichloroethylene (TCE) and trichloroacetic acid (TCA), were released. In 1980, IBM contacted the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to report that contaminants had begun to form a pool beneath Building 18. This is what became known as the plume.
It is hard for people to believe in invisible things, but the plume began to manifest. Its vapors started to travel underground. It spread to encompass 300 acres of the town: churches, movie theaters, grocery stores, and 480 homes. It was no longer invisible when people began to get sick.
The danger of TCE exposure is that it is carcinogenic and can impair fetal development. The chemical penetrated deep into the groundwater as a liquid and then began to evaporate, moving through air pockets in the soil. This migration continued through cracks in the foundations of homes and buildings, creating an indoor environment of prolonged exposure. People who both lived and worked in the plume were called “double dippers.”
When the initial spill occurred, IBM began digging wells. Twenty extraction wells pumped out contaminated groundwater. In 2002, the year IBM shuttered its factories, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) required the company to test the air quality. By 2004, they entered into a “formal consent order” to investigate and remediate the contamination. What IBM found led them to install vapor mitigation systems in homes and other buildings in the plume.
These systems are discernible by the white boxes attached to long pipes that reach up to roofs, rerouting the vapor from underground into the surrounding air outside. Now in homes, houses of worship, billiard bars, and barber shops, there is a constant whir of ninety-watt motors working against TCE. The contamination is continually announcing itself. It is ignorable as a low drone, forgotten and re-heard over and over again.
Endicott is important because it is not unique. It is a story that one can almost write without knowing the specifics. It is a story of the postindustrial long after the last shoe, car, or computer travels through the factory.
Endicott proves that it is only through extraction, refinement, and manufacturing that computational feats of any kind are possible. The machine is made of materials from the earth: copper, gold, nickel, silicon. In order to purify, clean, and combine its pieces, intensive chemical baths are used. The computers and smartphones that result have an incredibly short working life, on average just two to three years. A shorter life than a car tire, a winter coat, a stereo, or a shovel.
Though compact when presented to consumers, these devices also have a huge material footprint. The inputs for a microchip are 630 times the mass of the final product. After the product is made, all of these excess inputs recombine into new chemical slurries, the unsaleable byproduct of the machine. These life-altering chemicals return to the earth in indigestible ways, and creep through our basements, waterways, genomes. There are 2.71 billion smartphone users in the world, and 1.5 billion personal computers in use. This means there are many towns like Endicott.
Inside the Clean Room
I too am from an IBM town, one in northern Vermont, the only in the state. Like thousands of other Vermonters, I worked in the factory there. I didn’t get sick and neither did my immediate coworkers, but I began to hear troubling stories. I also began to read article after article imploring IBM to stay in Vermont. Eventually IBM did leave, but unlike in Endicott, the factory was taken over by a new company and kept running. In Vermont the pollution was quieter. The factory was not classified as a Superfund site, so it did not stick in the public conscience — only in the thoughts of those who worked there. The pollution also remained quieter because the factory is still in operation.
The work itself, twelve-hour shifts in a factory built to protect the product not the people, was dehumanizing. I performed one step in hundreds required to make microchips. The Vermont plant specializes in amplification chips that transmit signals to satellites and enhance the speakers nestled next to our ears on our phones. Twenty-four hours a day, white-clad employees walk up and down the fluorescent hallways of the factory: workers in hoods, gloves, veils, booties, and coveralls so that the eyes are all that is visible. This is to protect the delicate chip from human contaminate.
I worked in the “wets” department, applying chemical cleaners to microchips so that layers of circuitry can be built cleanly on top of one another. The chemical wash machines I operated look similar to a home washing machine. The workers used to man the chemical baths themselves, balancing the boxes of wafers on a hooked pole and removing them when a manual timer dinged. Some even used to volunteer for this job because they thought it could get you high. Now the process is more mechanized: I performed the simplified and repetitive function of loading and unloading the chemical wash machine, then putting the product onto an automated overhead track, so that there were always half-made microchips floating above, traveling to the next tool required to complete them.
The pay is a few dollars above minimum wage. I had to pass background and literacy tests and formally agree to chemical exposure in my job interview. I’m not sure whether it was the low pay, volatile hiring and firing, or the sensory deprivation inherent in working in a “clean room,” but the workers engaged in small rebellions. People had sex behind the robots, got loaded on their lunch breaks, defecated in trash cans, and hid six-packs in the floor tiles. One janitor, tasked with cleaning the factory, called in a bomb threat.
The Vermont factory, like the one in Endicott, spilled chemicals into the surrounding area. Five miles of underground piping leaked, delivery drivers spilled solvents, workers poured waste into drains that were not hooked up to pipes, the contents of unsealed wells and a “sludge landfill” seeped into the earth. The chemicals spread forty acres wide and travelled 300 acres deep into the bedrock of the town.
In 1979, the contamination came to light when IBM reported the spills to the EPA. TCE and PCE, another carcinogenic degreasing agent, were found in the nearby river and lake: in some areas, PCE levels were 19,000 times higher than the state standard allowed in drinking water. In cooperation with the EPA, IBM began a groundwater cleanup campaign. Contractors for the company in Vermont said the process, conducted across six sites, would take more than two hundred years. Scientists say it could take thousands.
In Endicott, the New York State DEC does not have a time estimate at all. In both cases, the contamination will cling to the land long past the lifespan of a factory, a product, or even an industry.
When IBM left Endicott there was no new company to take over the factory, like in Vermont. In the newly quiet town, IBM’s legacy began to ring louder. It was not simply the land that was changed, but the people too.
In Endicott, both teenagers and adults got cancer. One girl broke her leg walking through the halls of her high school. At the hospital she found out she had bone cancer. And there were children born with malformed hearts. The New York State Department of Health (DOH) reported fifteen cases of infants born with heart defects over seventeen years in one Endicott neighborhood. This number is more than twice that of the normal population.
When Kevin Every moved to a rental in Endicott from Philadelphia, his wife Tiah was pregnant with their youngest. If he had known that the house was in the plume he never would have rented it. “But nobody gave me that choice,” he said. Instead, he found out about the plume on the news. When his son Deron was born, he had six different heart defects. At thirteen days old, he had his first operation. At eight years old, he had a stroke.
“He prays,” Kevin told me. Deron prayed for a new heart, and got a transplant this summer. The family eventually bought a house outside the plume. Kevin doesn’t know if ventilation was ever installed on his rental or who lives there now. Renters, who don’t know the history of the area or can’t afford higher rents, are unfairly affected. They are often transient enough not to be accounted for when they get sick. At the Ronald McDonald House in Syracuse, when Deron was an infant recovering from his initial heart surgery, Kevin met seven families. They were his neighbors from Endicott. Their babies also had heart defects. When Kevin got back to Endicott, he called a lawyer.
Today, Kevin spends a lot of time traveling to doctors. He tells his four other kids, “If that was you, I’d be doing it for you.” I asked Kevin about IBM: if he thinks it’s an accident, if he thinks they’re sorry. “They can do whatever they want just so they can have a buck… families lose because now they have a loved one that’s sick. If I went out and changed the oil in my car and dumped it on the grass I would get in trouble,” he said. When a commercial for IBM comes on TV, he can’t bear to watch it. “This is happening all around America,” he said. No matter if they ever admit what they’ve done, “right is right and wrong is wrong.”
James Little worked at IBM in Endicott for fifteen years as a senior operator making chip boards. He worried about leaky machines. Once, he shut down a machine that was spilling chemicals into an overflow tray. His manager chastised him and told him never to do that again. James heard rumors of chemicals dumped in holes in the concrete cellar, pipes with leaks, and train cars that spilled their deliveries of chemicals. Workers around him were getting sick. A girl who worked beside him got a brain tumor. A man in his department had his nostrils “eaten out” from the fumes. “The bottom line,” Little said “was they wanted to get the work out… I think people were sacrificed.” Little became an activist and workplace safety advocate. He talked to the press. His manager told him if his name appeared in the paper one more time he would be fired. He kept his job until the factory shut down.
Such stories aren’t limited to Endicott. There are similar stories wherever IBM manufactured chips. Michael Ruffing and Faye Carlton worked at IBM in East Fishkill, New York. They sued IBM after their son was born blind with facial deformities that prevented him from breathing normally. Candace Curtis, whose mother worked while pregnant with her in the same East Fishkill plant, was born without kneecaps. She is not physically capable of talking. Nancy LaCroix, of IBM Vermont, had a baby girl with bone defects, which caused her brain to protrude from her skull and left her with stunted fingers and no substantial toes. One unnamed child of an employee was born without a vagina.
Superfund Site, IBM on Trial
Beginning in the 1990s, lawsuits began popping up all over the country where IBM made chips. A case from IBM San Jose that sought to establish a cancer link with chemical exposure in factories was dismissed when, after two days, the jury decided in favor of IBM. More than 200 workers in Vermont, New York, Minnesota, and California brought lawsuits against IBM for work and resultant environmental conditions that caused them or their children to become ill. All settled out of court.
In 2008, a group of around 1,000 Endicott residents sued IBM for $100 million over increased occurrence of kidney cancer, heart defects in children, and lowered property values. In proceedings, IBM was forced to disclose the contents of their “Corporate Mortality File,” a database dating back to 1969, a decade after the invention of the microchip. IBM claimed the file was created to track pensions and other lasting benefits to the families of deceased workers. It contained 33,730 former employees with basic identifiers like sex, age, work history, and, most importantly, cause of death. Increased rates of respiratory and breast cancer as well as cancer in the internal organs were found.
After seven years and no trial, IBM eventually settled the case out of court for an estimated $13 million. No wrongdoing was publicly admitted and no cancer link credibly established. “These are tragic cases, but there is no scientific evidence that there are increased rates of diseases of any kind among IBM employees,” an IBM spokesman stated in response to the rash of lawsuits. Kevin Every’s family was part of the $13 million settlement. He can’t go into detail but said, “We didn’t get what we shoulda got. They asked me how much I think we should get, I said everything. [Deron] can’t even go on the playground.”
Although IBM has denied responsibility for the health problems in Endicott, they have committed to helping clean up the town. (They have also tried to burnish their public image and defuse anger among residents with philanthropy: in 2002, on the day Endicott was classified as a class 2 Superfund site by the EPA, IBM gave Endicott a “gift” of $2 million.) The plume has shrunk considerably since remediation efforts began pumping out contaminated groundwater. A smaller plume means less toxic vapor intrusion into local homes and businesses. For now, the white vapor mitigation boxes on the outside of houses remain and the groundwater pumps continue to suck up polluted water.
Fortunately, IBM is a rich company with plenty of money for remediation. For IBM, spending $270 million on environmental clean-up projects across the nation in 2017 was easily absorbed in the following year’s revenue of $80 billion.
James Little, the former factory worker, hopes that new business will come to Endicott now that it is cleaner. He still loves his hometown. “I would consider this site pretty much safe,” Little told me, but he knows the spilled chemicals will be nearly impossible to totally eradicate. They will continue to use the vapor mitigation systems and the groundwater pumps.
So much polluted groundwater was pumped out (over 800,000 gallons), in fact, that sinkholes began to form in the dry soil. It is like rinsing and squeezing a sponge, Little told me. The same flood that partially destroyed the old IBM country club helped to flush out some of the contaminants from the ground. Still, the chemicals bind to the dirt, and it seems unlikely that they will ever be totally eliminated.
Beyond the borders of Endicott, there remain seventy-six microchip manufacturing facilities in the United States. There are many more around the world, from South Korea to Taiwan, Germany to Singapore. Toxic TCE is not just a problem for IBM neighborhoods, then, but for computer manufacturers all over. Of the Superfund site National Priorities list, TCE is in 1,045 of 1,699.
Around the same time that IBM pollution came to light in the United States, manufacturing was being shipped overseas, along with the pollution. Even as dangerous chemicals like TCE are replaced, or in rare cases outlawed, the sheer demand for the product is perhaps the biggest danger. Production is valued over safety and product is prized over resources. Until this equation changes, Endicott will have many sister cities.
Life Goes On
It is 7 a.m. in Endicott, the time the morning shift at IBM would start if the factory was still running. The light outside is a familiar arctic blue which makes the trees and snow seem both flat and harsh. I’m hungover, sitting on a bed in the Endwell Motel.
I spent last night at a bar called Close Quarters outside the reaches of the plume. My friend Sarah came here with me to take photographs, and she came to the bar too. Sarah drank mini bottles of white wine while I drank Labatt Blues. We shared a basket of tater tots, talked, and watched football on TV.
We met an Italian guy, “Tim,” from here (townies call it “End-y-cott”) with a triangular nose and a tattoo of a big cumulous cloud spilling over his right hand. He bought me a shot of Jameson and I told him about my research. He said he didn’t work at IBM but he knew people who did, real old timers. He’s too young to have worked at this IBM. Instead, he drives an 18-wheeler for CVS.
Tim used to be a drug addict like a lot of people I meet around here. They are frank about it: sick but better now. It’s not so much opioids that are the problem these days but meth. It seems the desire is not in wanting to slow down, but instead to speed things up. The town population has dipped to 13,000, smaller than the IBM workforce at its height. Instead of manufacturing, people now work in retail, healthcare, or the service industry. Nearly 20 percent of the town lives in poverty.
Tim showed me videos of his fish tank on his phone. I kept asking, “Is that a goldfish?”
“No,” he’d say. They all had different species names, bright yellows and oranges swimming across the slick expanse of his phone. He showed me his truck delivery route for the next day. He’d be driving north to Vermont, right by the factory where I used to work.
We began to talk of violence. He likes to fight, he said, smiling, “but when I see a flower, I see a woman.” That’s why men need women, he told me and Sarah. We traded stories about killing pigs. Tim’s story was about a butcher crying and shooting a pig that wouldn’t die. He cried so much he was blinded by his tears. He cried so much he started praying. Sarah and I told him about the pig we shot that ran away into the woods, how it had to be tackled and shot again. The instinct in nature — a flower, a pig, a town — that does not want to die was there both times. We talk like this about life and death as a way to talk about the poison of the plume, and our hope for the future.