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Our Opinion: Intel's contribution more than emissions

There’s no evidence at this point that airborne emissions from Intel — Oregon’s largest private employer — have harmed any of its neighbors in Washington County.

The company has never been fined by the state’s Department of Environmental Quality and it has consistently operated within the limits set by the DEQ — except for an unintentional oversight related to fluoride emissions.

In pointing out these facts, we recognize that some of Intel’s critics will accuse us of being apologists for big industry. However, it is important for the public to balance the negative allegations they are hearing about Intel against the company’s actual environmental record in Oregon.

It’s also vital that local residents consider the substantial social and economic benefits that flow from having 17,000 quality jobs on Intel’s campuses in Hillsboro and Aloha.

In recent weeks, Intel’s emissions permit has come under escalating scrutiny. The company received approval in 2010 for an updated permit that includes the impact of one of two new Ronler Acres plants in Hillsboro — the D1X facility that’s now started producing chips. Construction recently began on the second plant, which also requires changes to Intel’s permit.

The process for obtaining a new permit has been clouded by the realization that Intel had not included fluoride emissions in previous permit applications. Oregon has the strictest standard in the United States for fluoride emissions, and Intel apparently didn’t understand it needed to disclose its fluoride levels.

Because of that error, and because of the volume of comments the DEQ has received about the Intel emissions permit, the state is reviewing Intel’s permit applications for both phases of its $6 billion expansion. Further confusing the matter are new federal air quality standards that have added carbon emissions — greenhouse gases — to the list of substances to be regulated.

Based on information disclosed to date, no evidence exists to suggest the public is in any danger from fluoride or other Intel emissions. Environmental watchdogs are pushing for stricter regulation of Intel, and it looks as if these permitting problems could slow the company’s expansion plans. State officials, however, must be cognizant of the company’s need to move swiftly in a competitive world.

Semiconductor manufacturing is essential to the health of Oregon’s economy. The industry is responsible for fully 45 percent of the value of all exports from this state. Without this form of manufacturing, without those exports and without these jobs, Oregon would have far less money for schools. It also would have higher unemployment and a raft of additional social ills.

All manufacturing plants produce some type of emissions. It is the DEQ’s responsibility to ensure that Oregonians are not placed at undue risk from industrial pollutants. In doing so, the DEQ and state officials also must offer predictability to large employers, so they know their multibillion dollar investments will be secure for the long term.

Industries such as Intel support job security for thousands of employees, provide stable tax revenues for local and state governments and distribute widespread community benefits. These businesses generally understand the need for strong environmental laws. They just need certainty in how they will be interpreted.

If Oregon wants to retain or increase the presence of manufacturers, its regulatory agencies must be clear and consistent in their communication and enforcement of important environmental rules.