A tale of two cities


"The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience,” Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. once wrote. This can be interpreted to mean that justice is subjective, shaped and reshaped over the years by social norms, by evolving moral priorities and shifting power structures. Even under the rule of law its application differs from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and situation to situation.

In other words, your justice might not be my justice.

So is that why residents of Hillsboro, Ore. – a suburb of Portland – and Rio Rancho, N.M. – within the Albuquerque metropolitan area – seem to display widely differing opinions about the environmental impact of similar Intel computer chip manufacturing operations in their communities?

Mike Rogoway, a business reporter with the Oregonian, published a fascinating article in that Portland-based paper telling the tale of Intel microchip fabrication facilities – where the tiny silicon processors powering most of the world's computers are built. As Rogoway describes, residents near the Rio Rancho facility have argued for decades that emissions from Intel's nearby Fab11x facility were responsible for respiratory ailments and other health problems.

In contrast, as Intel prepares to expand its Hillsboro operations it has heavily engaged its Oregon neighbors, many of whom – as reported in the Oregonian – welcome the expansion and few of whom have expressed concerns about the chip making facilities' environmental impacts.

Image of Intel plant in Oregon courtesy Flickr user Sam Beebe.

Computer chip manufacturing can be risky to the environment if not properly contained, Rogoway explains, because “The process employs a rogue's gallery of metals, acids, flammable gases and, in regulatory terms, other 'acute health hazards.'” Under ideal circumstances, chemicals are scrubbed, acids are neutralized, and solid waste is either recycled or disposed.

Nevertheless, up to 40 percent more wastewater will be produced by the new facility, and it will contain sulfur, copper, lead and ammonia in quantities that a sewage processor in Washington County – where Hillsboro is located – says are comparable to household concentrations.

Image of the Intel plant in New Mexico courtesy Flickr user cjc4454

Neighbors interviewed by Rogoway, or at least those cited in his article, say they aren't familiar with environmental concerns and they're even optimistic that the Intel expansion will keep property values up alongside the promise of hundreds of good new jobs.

So what makes the two facilities so different? Could it have something to do with Rogoway's sources? In Hillsboro, he quotes representatives of two neighborhood associations, while his sources in New Mexico were identified as individual residents. Its unclear whether there may be other individuals with differing perspectives in each community with whom he was unable to speak. Still, that's just speculation on my part, and it wouldn't explain why there were more complaints to state and federal officials about the New Mexico facility than the Oregon one (though perhaps that gives credence to Intel's own argument that it has learned from its experiences in Rio Rancho).

Could there just be different cultures in each neighboring community? Could other geographic factors shape the health impacts? Could different weather, different public water treatment systems, different permitting requirements, different plant-life and soil, different topology, different community health baselines or even different industrial neighbors alter the extent of the threat discharged chemicals present to public health?

These sort of questions matter in an age of companies with multi-state (not to mention multinational) operations.

So, too, do differing community values.

Still, the question nags. Though what we value and what we tolerate may shift from individual to individual and community to community, do we share a basic right to some universal definition of clean air and water and wealth? Or are the values of health and prosperity, like the law, defined by experience?

Bill Lascher is a Portland, Oregon-based freelancer. He focuses on the environment's intersection with science, business, culture and policy. 

He got the name for his Web site, Lascher at Large, from the legal column his father penned for 20 years before his death. Lascher is currently working on a project with his grandmother to tell the story of her cousin, Melville Jacoby, a foreign correspondent who died in the early days of World War II.

Essays in the Just West blog are not written by the High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Team reporting
Barry Johnson
Barry Johnson
Dec 16, 2010 11:11 AM
Bill, Your questions about the extent of reporting on the "tolerance" issue are well-taken. Maybe The Oregonian reporter should have teamed with an environment/high tech reporter in New Mexico to go deeper on the community values and community response in each site.

I'm not sure that "subjectivity" is the best way into the Holmes quote, though it's certainly implied. Holmes was an American pragmatist (one of his friends was William James) and believed with James that logic was applied to our laws after experience (and the pragmatist definition of experience is pretty specific), not before. Though experience is subjective, it is also shared, and by sharing our experiences, we can come to more useful descriptions of the world and therefore plans of action that improve things -- even the moral behavior implicit in our environmental laws.

Rogoway's story just scratches the surface on the question of how individuals and communities reach conclusions and to what extent they share them. Maybe the difference in the reporting in N.M. and Ore. is that Hillsboro has a more organized neighborhood association system? And that the association has provided a platform for these sorts of discussions? And that Rio Rancho doesn't, so individual explanations aren't tested by the group -- they are truly subjective in the most isolated of ways? I don't know, but assuming the Intel plant in Hillsboro isn't a massive polluter and that it's similar to the plant in Rio Rancho, that's a reasonable explanation. (It's also possible that the Rio Rancho plant pollutes more than the Hillsboro plant or as you suggest, that there's a difference in the quality of their waste treatment systems.)

To your last question, Holmes might say that our experience will continue to shape our understanding of our environment, meaning any law, far from being universal, is always transitional. What's universal is our desire for healthy water and air and the constant push/pull over what that standard should be. My question to you would be: How could we possibly derive the universal law you're talking about?
Corporate journalism
Karen and Jerry Cressa
Karen and Jerry Cressa
Dec 25, 2010 10:04 PM
Like Mr. Rogoway, Mr. Lascher is a good writer but too lazy to be a good journalist, meaning investigative reporter. Instead of just posing philosophical musings, why not look up some hard data, i.e., Oregon DEQ's Intel air and water permits and comments(2002-2007)? During Intel's last permit review, the Oregonian even refused to inform the public of that very event, assuring that the permit would be rubber stamped without any public awareness or public hearing. Mr. Rogoway is one of the culprits directly responsible for keeping the public in the dark then, and his article now is overdue:it's too late to be informed about Intel's permit now or even comment on it. Intel's Bill McKenzie must relish the type of corporate journalism The Oregonian excels at.