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Confronting Intel's 'dark side'

“The sky’s the limit” used to mean endless possibilities. In fact, though, the sky closest to us — our atmosphere — has its own limits. It can carry only so much pollution without damaging us, our economy and our environment.

How much is too much? We don’t know, and no agency is asking. A lot of agencies are busy, though, luring more “big employers” to our area. Isn’t it time to realize that such employers may also be big-time polluters?

I was a Washington County commissioner when we granted Intel its first big Oregon tax break to expand here in the mid-1990s. We’d heard of Intel’s environmental problems in the Silicon Valley, but chose to look on the sunny side: good new jobs in an area planned for urbanization and industries. They’d learned their lesson, they said, and would be “good neighbors.” Keith Thomson, head of Intel’s Oregon operations, promised me that Intel would support regional efforts to contain sprawl and protect natural resources.

While I was board chair and he was Intel’s top Oregon executive, that promise held. Intel joined us to lobby Congress for light-rail funding, key to our “smart growth.” We grew and prospered together.

Today, emerging from the Great Recession with big plans and new tax breaks, Intel is bigger than ever — but a dark side is emerging, too. With new buildings going up at Ronler Acres and in Aloha, Intel needs an expanded Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) permit to cover the extra pollutants these plants will emit. But Intel applied as a “minor polluter” —

a lightly-regulated category — and DEQ accepted it as such on a questionable technicality. Plus, for 35 years, Intel omitted its fluoride emissions from permit applications and reports. DEQ calls the omissions “errors” rather than violations.

DEQ says it must approve air emission permits for plants given land development permits by local jurisdictions (here, the city of Hillsboro and Washington County) and have little leeway to modify a requested permit. But land-use laws don’t require evaluation of potential air quality impacts before approving an industrial plant. So who’s checking on cumulative impacts of many plants on our airshed? Nobody.

Who’s checking the accuracy of figures submitted on applications and reports? Nobody.

Intel’s current permit has it report “estimated” emissions every six months. DEQ publishes summary reports annually. Nobody measures what comes out of stacks daily, weekly or monthly. Nobody warns neighbors if emission-cleaning devices fail and toxic emissions spike. The new permit proposes no further monitoring; no increased reporting.

A growing number of concerned citizens who share Intel’s airshed have done research, attended informational meetings, submitted written testimony and testified at a hearing held by DEQ in Hillsboro on Sept. 16. DEQ’s audio recording device, supposedly creating the public record, malfunctioned; no backup was made. They are offering telephone interviews instead, and have extended the comment period to Oct. 14. Intel offered to meet with citizens in a show of neighborliness, but to my knowledge, no testifiers have been contacted. Perhaps we’ll call them.

What to do? Lobby state and federal officials for tighter regulation and better funding to limit and monitor industrial polluters. Submit questions and concerns to DEQ.

For more action options, contact the Washington County Citizen Action Network (wc-can.org). WCCAN is seeking community-based ways of monitoring health effects and is exploring legal and political remedies.

Is the sky the limit for corporate polluters? For us, clean skies are a necessity that nobody will protect unless we take action.

Linda Peters is chairwoman of the Washington County Citizen Action Network and the former chairwoman of the Washington County Board of Commissioners.




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