Intel is to Oregon’s economy what Mount Hood is to its landscape: the signature feature that towers above everything else.
It’s pretty much impossible for the semiconductor giant, with more than 17,000 employees in Oregon, to be inconspicuous. Its Washington County factories become visible from blocks away. Its employees and suppliers clog surrounding roads. Nevertheless, Intel has done about as good a job of blending into its surroundings as one could expect. Until recently.
Intel is in the midst of adding a $3 billion factory, called D1X, in Hillsboro. It also is in the process of obtaining an air quality permit for all its Washington County operations from the state of Oregon in response to regulations on new greenhouse gas regulations enacted in 2011. Those two endeavors alone ensure a certain amount of scrutiny. Then, as reported by The Oregonian’s Katherine Driessen, Intel dropped a bombshell on the public. In preparing its air permit application for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, the company discovered that for years it had failed to meet requirements for reporting fluoride emissions. And DEQ had failed to notice the omission.
As a result, Intel finds itself at a crossroads. Decisions made in coming weeks will have a long-term effect on the company’s relationship with the community. The specifics of the application for an air quality permit are complicated, as one would expect. But the key to maintaining trust is simple: Intel must increase communication with the public and maintain transparency at every step.
To its credit, Intel acknowledges it made a big mistake by failing to report fluoride emissions. “We’re embarrassed by it,” said Todd Brady, global environmental manager. “It’s not how we do business.” To everyone’s relief, it is unlikely that the emissions harmed anyone. “I don’t think we’re going to find a health threat here,” said George Davis, a state environmental engineer working on the Intel permit for DEQ.
But that doesn’t mean everyone can just walk away from this incident and assume it won’t happen again. Intel’s expansion and increasing environmental expectations from the public and regulators dictate that the company improve its internal and external communications.
George Davis, a state environmental engineer working on the permit for DEQ, said the agency does not have any reason to believe the omission of fluoride from past applications was intentional. Still, DEQ is reviewing past cases “to see how we’ve handled this sort of thing in the past,” Davis said. “If we conclude either we or Intel made a mistake along the way, then we have to find a way to correct that.”
Intel officials told The Oregonian editorial board that the company’s fluoride emissions are about 2 tons a year today, below the federal reporting threshold of 3 tons a year. However, Oregon’s reporting threshold is 0.3 tons a year. And in its permit application, Intel projects that fluoride emissions could increase to 6.4 tons a year after all planned expansions are completed.
Brady said Intel has more than 50 emission-abatement devices at its Washington County factories and will add more than 30 devices and adjust existing equipment as part of the expansion. DEQ will review those plans to make sure they are adequate and can suggest improvements if needed. But Davis said the agency does not have the authority to deny the permit.
That leaves Intel with much of the responsibility for reassuring neighbors and others concerned about air pollution. Jill Eiland, Intel corporate affairs manager, said that over the past 10 years, Intel has invited nearby neighbors on site for informational meetings on a regular basis. It also sends information to about 2,000 businesses and households that are on a mailing list. The company plans to broaden those programs to include advocacy groups and others who have an interest in the company but are not as close geographically. It also plans to re-institute a citizen advisory panel that was dissolved about two years ago.
Those steps should help rebuild trust with the community, but it will take time. Intel must understand that it no longer will get as much benefit of the doubt from neighbors as it did before the fluoride revelations.