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Toxic Town

IBM, Pollution, and Industrial Risks

Peter C. Little

Publication Year: 2014

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.  
In Toxic Town, Peter C. Little tracks 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’s stated mission 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.

Published by: NYU Press


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Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii-viii

List of Figures and Tables

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xvi

On June 16, 2011, International Business Machines Corporation (IBM) celebrated its one-hundredth birthday and commemorated this event with a year-long series of seminars and conferences around the world. The centennial celebration was an opportunity for IBM to reach out to many of its constituents in industry, government, and academia...


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pp. xvii-xx

List of Acronyms and Abbreviations

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pp. xxi-xxii

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1. Down in Big Blue’s Toxic Plume in Upstate New York

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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...

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2. The New Mitigation Landscape

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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...

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3. From Shoes to Computers to Vapor Mitigation Systems

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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...

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4. Living the Tangle of Risk, Deindustrialization, and Community Transformation

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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...

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5. Post-Mitigation Skepticism and Frustration

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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...

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6. Grassroots Action and Conflicted Environmental Justice

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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...

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7. Citizens, Experts, and Emerging Vapor Intrusion Science and Policy

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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...

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8. Accounting for the Paradox of IBM’s “Smarter Planet”

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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...


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pp. 197-208


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pp. 209-232


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pp. 233-242

About the Author

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E-ISBN-13: 9780814764510
E-ISBN-10: 0814764517
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814760697
Print-ISBN-10: 0814760694

Page Count: 264
Publication Year: 2014

OCLC Number: 870950800
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Toxic Town

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Hazardous waste sites -- New York (State) -- Endicott.
  • Hazardous waste site remediation -- New York (State) -- Endicott.
  • Endicott (N.Y.) -- Environmental conditions.
  • International Business Machines Corporation.
  • Computer industry -- Environmental aspects -- New York (State) -- Endicott.
  • Computer industry -- Waste disposal -- Environmental aspects -- New York (State) -- Endicott.
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