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The Way I See It: Unintended Consequences
Friday, November 11, 2011 | Ray Rasmussen, I-Connect007

Editor's Note: This column originally appeared in the September 2011 issue of The PCB Magazine.

I borrowed the title of this column from Al Gore’s documentary on Global Warming. I believe it best describes the forces at work behind last month’s comments by Foxconn’s Terry Gou that the company will add one million robots to their factories over the next few years. From a manufacturing perspective, it’s exciting news; it’s where the future of manufacturing is headed. At the same time it’s quite frightening and represents a sea change in the industry.

Well-Meaning, but Misguided

I remember a struggle the PCB industry was having in the San Francisco Bay Area back in the 1990s. The environmentalists were demanding further reductions in the amount of copper being discharged into South San Francisco Bay. To accomplish this, the cities (San Jose, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, etc.) which were the recipients of the processed wastewater generated by the fabricators were asking for another part per million (or more) reduction in the wastewater limits. For some perspective, I believe they were proposing the limit be reduced from two PPM to one, which was a minuscule amount of copper.

During this process, we learned that most of the copper flowing into the bay was coming from the copper linings in car brake pads and from copper water pipes in homes and commercial buildings, which leeches small amounts of copper 24/7. Another contributor was the copper sulfate used to kill algae in the water supply. There were also natural contributors like the rivers and streams flowing directly into the Bay. As it turned out, the PCB factories were contributing a very small amount of the total amount of copper found in the water, but pressure from environmental groups forced the cities to act. My argument with the well-meaning, yet misguided environmental groups was that they were forcing our industry out of the Bay Area. These relatively pollution-free factories would close down and reappear overseas where they’d be free to dump thousands of times more pollutants into the environment. On top of that, jobs would be lost. The NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) mentality of the environmentalists was going to cause huge amounts of pollution to flow into the rivers and streams overseas. They were doing much more damage to the environment, pushing their small problem on to the backs of very poor people in other parts of the world. It was an unintended consequence of their well-meaning efforts. They weren’t looking at the big picture.

To try and gain an understanding of what’s transpired over the last 20 years, partly as a result of those efforts to “save the Bay,” I asked Harvey Miller of Fabfile Online for stats from the the early 1990s and today. The PCB industry in the San Francisco Bay Area lost around 4,000 jobs, dropping from about 7,100 employees in 1990 to about 3,000 today. The number of facilities dropped from 98 to 39, representing a loss of around 60 factories, mostly small businesses. Almost all of these companies went out of business. A few moved volume manufacturing to China. Of course, not all the blame can be laid at the feet of the environmental community, but they did contribute to the job losses and the loss of tax revenues, etc. They also helped pollute faraway places, mostly in Asian countries, which were without environmental regulations and safeguards for employees.

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