UT, Austin, and High Tech Toxics

The dark side of economic development

By Theresa Case
December 1990; pages 4-5, 13; Volume 2, No 3

When Austin successfully brought two high tech "plums" to town, the Microelectronics and Computer Technology Center (MCC) and Sematech, the media declared Austin a "megatrend" city. The Economist declared that "Austin Discards its Dungarees," while the The New York Times headlined: "Is Austin the Next Silicon Valley?" Indeed, the state of Texas, the city of Austin, and the University of Texas have spent a considerable amount of energy and taxpayers' money attempting to transform Austin into a center for high technology and manufacturing.

Sematech and MCC, both consortia of high-tech companies pooling their research, provide critical momentum for this effort. Austin and the state of Texas promised at least $56.3 million in public funds to Sematech. About $12.3 million of this amount came from the University of Texas, which purchased the old Data General site for the consortium and charges Sematech $1 per year rent. UT also pitched in more than $34 million to the effort to lure MCC to Austin. MCC pays UT $1 per year in rent for its $14 million site at the Balcones Research Center. More recently, the City of Austin enticed Applied Materials, a high tech company based in Santa Clara, California, with $7.8 million in incentives. The incentive package includes a waiver of all building and development fees and a seven year 80 percent tax abatement on property improvement.

Politicians, university administrators and the legislature justify these expenditures by citing benefits of job creation, diversification of the economy, the production of industry-trained graduate students, and enhanced prestige as a center of knowledge and excellence. However, missing from this discussion is any concern for the consequences of the "clean industry" on Austin's environment. To answer this concern, we should examine the history of high tech's birthplace, Silicon Valley in California, and the environmental impact of the high tech firms already located in Austin.

A History Lesson: High-tech toxics in Silicon Valley

Santa Clara Valley was once an agricultural paradise called Valley of the Heart's Delight that has been transformed over the last twenty-five years into the center of computer design and manufacturing with the highest density of electronic manufacturing firms in the country. For most of its history, the electronics industry enjoyed a "clean" reputation - its smokestack-free facilities resembled modern college libraries. Inside, white-clad workers assembled parts in a "sterile" environment. But in 1981, the discovery of contamination sites at the facilities of both IBM and Fairchild Semiconductor put the lie the industry's "clean" image.

At the Fairchild site, 58,000 gallons of solvents leaked from an underground fiberglass storage tank, contaminating an aquifer that supplied drinking water to thousands of people. A subsequent study determined that the birth-defect rate in the area was three times the national average. Since then, more than 100 other toxic chemical spills have further polluted the Valley's environment.

The high-tech industry depends on semiconductor devices. Semiconductors are integrated circuits based on materials that only partially conduct electricity. Silicon that's "doped" with other metals is the basic building block for the semiconductor industry. The process of turning silicon into integrated circuits requires the use of various chemicals, most of them toxic, including solvents, acids, bases, metal solutions, and toxic dopant gases. Printed circuit board manufacture and disk drive manufacture and assembly also use toxic chemicals, particularly ozone-depleting CFCs. Many of these toxic materials can affect an exposed person's reproductive abilities, while many others are carcinogenic or acutely toxic.

FACILITY TOTAL TR 1988 TOTAL TR 1989 sewage off-site air ozone-dpltg
(numbers in pounds)            
Litton Advanced Circuitry   51845 51845      
Xetel Corp.   92870     92870 92870
Lockheed Missiles & Space   27585   11685 14100  
IBM Corp 653347 455055 22990 75583 356308 167200
Texaco 908800 1063200 4950 1025250 33000  
3M Dynatel Systems Division 66000 60910 500 9910 50500 37800
Texas Instruments 117298 120825 33451 2059 70344 62600
Motorola 1875562 1988275 23991 1842479 121804 73250
Advanced Micro Devices 376444 522990 78200 251400 193390 23250
TOTALS 3997451 4381755 215927 3218366 3411756 456970
Environmental Destination: Source: 1989 reports that companies file with the EPA under the national community right-to-know law. The source for 1988 total toxic releases is a report by the Citizens Fund, Poisons in Our Neighborhoods: Toxic Pollution in Texas. TR - toxic releases; offsite - toxics transferred to off site locations; sewage - toxics emitted into the public sewage system; air - toxics emitted into the air.


The growth of the high-tech industry and the use of toxic chemicals severely damaged the environment in the Santa Clara Valley. It has, for example, resulted in extensive groundwater pollution: over 150 underground chemical leaks containing over one hundred chemicals have contaminated over two hundred public and private drinking water wells. Silicon Valley has 29 Superfund sites, the highest concentration in the country, 23 of these are related to high-tech industry. Superfund sites are sites so polluted that the federal government must coordinate cleanup. In fact, Stanford's high tech industrial park, which played a critical role in the early growth of the industry, has been named a Superfund site because of leaks from an underground storage tank.

Applied Materials, the company which Austin recently lured to town with a multi-million dollar incentive package, also has a Superfund site in Santa Clara caused by storage tanks leaking carcinogenic toxics into groundwater. In 1988, a three year study conducted by the Department of Health Services in California found that pregnant women who drank tap water in the Silicon Valley area had twice as many miscarriages and four times as many birth defects in their offspring than did expectant mothers who drank filtered or no tap water during pregnancy.

The hazards of toxic gas storage and the emission levels of toxic gases into the air pose serious health risks to the community and environment. Companies near San Francisco emit almost nine tons of smog-forming gases daily. In addition, the discharge of ozone-destroying CFCs in Silicon Valley is higher than anywhere else in the country.

The purpose of the "clean room," where microchips are made, is to keep the area "clean" for products, not for workers or for the surrounding community. The air inside the "clean room" has been filtered of most particulates to protect the microelectronic components, but it can be contaminated by toxic vapors used as solvents. High-tech workers come into contact with toxic substances that damage the invisible world of chromosomes and body tissues and which can negatively affect their lungs, livers, kidneys, central nervous systems, and reproductive capacities.

Manufacturing chip components involves the use of many highly toxic materials: workers face the danger of spills, accidents, and chronic exposure. The reproductive hazards of the industry were documented by a 1986 University of Massachusetts study of employees at the Digital Equipment Corporation facility in Hudson, Massachusetts. The study found that certain women employees suffered twice the normal rate of miscarriage, and all production workers experienced headaches, nausea, and skin rashes. The rate of occupational illness among workers in the electronics industry is three times that of other industries.

FACILITY Toxic-at Toxic-ct Toxic-e Toxic-bd Toxic-r Toxic-c Toxic-n Toxic-p Toxic-h
(numbers in pounds)                  
Litton Advanced Circuitry     51845            
Xetel Corp.   92870              
Lockheed Missiles & Space       25785 25785        
IBM Corp 27590 282190 92811 14896 156486 45173 92016 56653 6590
Texaco 127450 143450 125750 12500 44250 12500 901700 15950 12250
3M Dynatel Systems Division 110 110 37660 32750 32750 23000   45800  
Texas Instruments 6601 84172 35413 500 51124 15650     15650
Motorola 1697818 1649108 91630 144300 148568   10020 46200  
Advanced Micro Devices 327380 498640 214610 278250 292750   59550    
TOTALS 2186949 2750540 649719 508981 751713 96323 1063286 164603 34490
Toxicity: Since some chemicals fall into more than one category of toxicity, the categories shown on the chart are not cumulative. at - acute toxicity (short term exposure by inhalation, oral, or dermal route can cause death); ct - chronic toxicity; e - environmental toxicity; bd - developmental toxicity (birth defects); r - reproductive toxicity; c - carcinogenicity; n - neurotoxicity; p - persistence in the environment; h - heritable and genetic and chromosomal mutations


Three-quarters of production workers in the electronics industry in Silicon Valley are women, and 35 to 45 percent are people of color. A report by the state of California's Employment Development Department on the 1985 slump in the semiconductor market found that assembly and production workers were disproportionately effected by layoffs and job loss. Younger and older workers, those with low seniority, and African-American workers were more likely to be laid off. Blacks in particular were almost twice as likely to be displaced as to be reemployed. The report found that when the industry sales recovered, 13 percent of semiconductor jobs did not return.

All major firms used three strategies to restructure the Valley's workforce; Some work was transferred to new and less costly locations in the United States, some work was relocated overseas, and work also became more automated. Indeed, research in California has shown that the average life expectancy of a high tech facility is six years compared to thirteen for all other manufacturing in the state.

High tech in Austin: The chip and the damage done

Kiss Me, I'm a CEO

The case of Silicon Valley has clear implications for communities such as Austin that look to high tech as a cornucopia of jobs and economic beneficence. In California, which Austin boosters hold up as a model, high tech has adversely affected workers' health and it has disproportionately hurt marginalized populations during periods of economic contraction, calling into question the rhetoric surrounding high tech as a solution for economically disadvantaged Austinites.

Unfortunately, the news about high tech's environmental and safety record in Silicon Valley has not reached Austin. After successfully luring MCC to Texas, then-Governor Mark White told reporters: "I don't think you'll find that there will be any pollution [from the electronics industry] unless the Japanese cars they drive to and from work do it." However, one doesn't have to look to Silicon Valley to get some picture of the environmental effects of high tech. High tech, although on a much smaller scale, is already here, and it's already polluting Austin's environment.

According to EPA's Toxic Release Inventory, last year Austin's high tech industry legally emitted over 365 tons of toxics into the environment, more than a ton of toxics per day. High-tech firms emitted 287 tons of toxic gas into Austin's air, nearly half a million pounds of this were ozone-depleting chemicals. Almost 216,000 pounds of waste were disposed of by underground injection, a process that pumps hazardous waste deep into the ground and which can result in extensive and unexpected contamination of groundwater. Nearly 900,000 pounds of waste were disposed of by incineration, a system that produces both air emissions and a toxic ash that must be buried.

While these figures are dwarfed by the figures of emissions by the petrochemical industry in the Houston area and along the Texas coastline (Beaumont, Port Lavaca), they represent a destructive impact upon Austin's environment and contribute to already high toxic pollution levels in Texas. In 1988, Texas manufacturers released a total of 724.5 million pounds of toxics into the state's environment, ranking Texas second in the country in toxic releases. That same year, Texas ranked first in the country in the release of toxic chemicals into the air: 169.9 million pounds. Significantly, most of these releases were legal and permitted by the government.

The large amount of toxic chemicals that are used during everyday production and the thousands of pounds of hazardous materials that are routinely trucked along the highways translates into a clear potential for accidents and spills. Austin's high-tech industry uses in largest quantities these chemicals: sulfuric acid, 111-trichloroethane, freon-113, methyl ethyl ketone, ammonia, nitric acid, and hydrochloric acid. Some of the dangers for some of the chemicals include:

    111-trichloroethane - Chronic exposure can cause mutations and damage the liver, kidneys, and skin. Acute exposure can irritate the eyes and skin, cause dizziness, unconsciousness, and death.

    Ammonia - Chronic exposure damages the lungs and acute exposure irritates the skin and eyes, possibly causing permanent or temporary blindness. This is a corrosive chemical which can cause deep burns.

    Hydrochloric acid - Breathing the vapor can irritate the lungs and higher exposure can cause buildup of fluid in the lungs, which can cause death.

    Hydrogen flouride - A severe respiratory irritant, exposure can cause deep burns of the skin or eyes. Chronic exposure can cause weakening of the bones.

    Nitric acid - This can cause lung irritation and pulminary edema, which can be fatal. Acute exposure can irritate the lung nose, throat, and skin.

    Xylene (mixed isomers) - Xylenes can affect you when breathed in and by passing through your skin. Xylenes may damage the developing fetus and cause problems with memory and concentration. Repeated exposure may damage bone marrow causing low blood cell count.

Two extremely dangerous gases in use by the high tech industry in Silicon Valley are arsine gas and phosphine. Exposure to even minute amounts of arsine gas causes rapid death. It is toxic to every organ studied. Arsine gas destroys red blood cells when inhaled, so that the only lifesaving procedure is a complete blood transfusion. There is no life saving treatment for acute exposure to phosphine gas, only supportive measures. Phosphine is often transported and used in 100 percent concentrations. Although Austin's high tech firms do not use these gases (at least according to EPA's limited reporting requirements), these gases might be used here if the industry grows as much as high-tech boosters propose.

Developer John Watson, who helped spearhead the effort to bring MCC to Austin, foresees a "Texas Triangle" where "different areas of the triangle will serve different needs - Austin with basic research, Dallas perhaps with applied research, San Antonio and Houston with assembly." However, Texas is already the home of 29 federal Superfund sites and an additional 29 sites are on the state registry of sites that warrant supervision and clean-up. The Houston area of Harris County alone hosts 11 of those Superfund sites.

Most groundwater contamination sites have been caused by leaking underground storage tanks. A new "model ordinance" in the Valley provides an incredibly simple approach to this problem by requiring that storage tanks be "double-walled" so that leaks are stopped by a second wall from polluting sensitive groundwater. One has to ask why multiple leaks had to occur before the industry implemented this obvious precaution. The answer is that the highly competitive nature of semiconductor manufacturing drives companies to maximize production at the cost of worker and environmental safety. The priority of the industry is to make everything faster, smaller and cheaper than domestic and international competition. The resistance to long term investment in toxics reduction stems from the fear that a competitor will get the edge in developing a faster, smaller product.

Recently, activists have focused on Sematech, a non-profit consortium of semiconductor manufacturing firms here in Austin. Sematech's primary goal is to challenge the growing success of Japanese-owned competitors by developing ways to squeeze more and more circuit elements onto each flake of silicon. Such advancement, however, could make the industry even more reliant upon toxic chemicals since more solvents are needed to wash away ever smaller particles that could damage a circuit. Representatives from environmental organizations, labor officials, and other concerned citizens from across the U.S. formed a group called Campaign for Responsible Technology (CRT). CRT believes that Sematech, as a federally funded research project with significant influence in the semiconductor industry, is in a unique position to develop chip-making techniques that use less toxic materials.

By bringing producers together under one roof, Sematech could allow companies to share the risk of developing ways to reduce toxics use by the industry. Further, because Sematech receives half of its budget from the federal government, CRT activists argue that a good part of its resources should be directed toward serving the "broader interests of the American people," rather than focusing on the industry's efforts to "beat the Japanese." CRT also sees the opportunity for coordinating information and the training of employees in toxic use reduction. But CRT needs our help locally in pressuring Sematech to commit to toxics reduction.

The high tech industry has attempted to clean up its image and under public pressure, to reduce its use of some toxics. In 1987, the Semiconductor Industry Association began funding a $3.5 million study of the hazards of the semiconductor industry on its workers, although no representation of workers exists on the oversight committee. IBM and other large high tech companies have pledged to reduce their emissions in the next few years, particularly the use of ozone depleting chemicals. In Silicon Valley, public outrage has produced two strong laws on storage of toxic materials and gases. Yet, zero toxic emissions, the ultimate goal by which all progress should be measured, has not been addressed.

High tech has a history of being a toxic polluter and a hazardous neighbor. If the future of Austin lies with high technology, citizens of Austin and their elected officials must ensure that the history of Silicon Valley does not repeat itself here. Austin's environmentally-conscience reputation might lead us to have faith that our elected officials will uphold that reputation. But high tech is already polluting Austin. And as we have learned from the struggle against the Barton Creek PUD, for example, Austin's environmental future is only as good as the courage and scrutiny of its citizens.