#2 San Jose, California
(San Benito and Santa Clara counties)
Background: This area’s booming high-tech business during the 1980s and 1990s earned it the name Silicon Valley. Numerous semiconductor and computer chip manufacturers brought in huge numbers of highly educated workers, driving up house values and living costs. Then the dot-com bust hit, and San Jose suddenly lost 200,000 jobs. Now the city is seeking to reinvent itself as a center for innovation and research in such diverse fields as pharmaceuticals and automotives.
Problems: In the early 1980s, a leaking underground storage tank filled with trichloroethane, a solvent suspected of causing reproductive and developmental problems, was found to be contaminating the drinking water of 65,000 people near a semiconductor plant. Over the next few years Silicon Valley became dotted with Superfund sites; at one time, Santa Clara County had more such sites than any other county in the country. Besides the high-tech contamination, the Valley’s rapid growth resulted in extensive sprawl, which means traffic, and air pollution — trapped by surrounding mountains.
Solutions: The widespread pollution gave rise to a strong grass-roots environmental movement that pressured industry to clean up its mess. Industry responded by going the extra mile, setting higher standards for itself than required. The EPA, meanwhile, is overseeing the containment and cleanup of the Superfund sites. Because so much groundwater had been contaminated, the Santa Clara Valley Water District became a national leader in testing and protecting drinking water. As for its traffic woes, San Jose can thank the state of California for stricter regulations that have helped reduce the carbon monoxide and diesel particulates in the air. The bottom line for San Jose: It’s a city now known nationwide for its clean streets, fresh air, and healthy lifestyle.