Center for Public Environmental Oversight
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Since the early 1970s, the Pacific Studies Center has been studying the semiconductor industry: its history, its environmental consequences, its workforce, and its global division of labor, As the U.S. government and several states offers billions of dollars in subsidies to producers of chips and chip-manufacturing equipment, we are collecting our articles and reports on this page in the hope that those subsidies will better benefit the semiconductor production workforce, host communities, and the environment.

General: Even before the term Silicon Valley became popular, Santa Clara County, California was home to most American and several foreign-owned semiconductor companies. It's important to understand the conditions that allowed the industry to flourish here, as well as why it has distributed it operations around the world.

Environment: Semiconductor manufacturing, particularly the fabrication of microscopic circuitry on silicon disks called wafers, is a chemical-intensive process. We first became aware of this through the illnesses of female production workers, receiving a Federal grant to form the Project on Health and Safety in Electronics (PHASE) in the mid-1970s. In the early 1980s, when it was discovered that chipmakers throughout Silicon Valley had contaminated our groundwater, we began working with the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. Later, through the Center for Public Environmental Oversight (CPEO), we studied pollution sites both in and beyond Silicon Valley.

Environment-MEW: The Middlefield-Ellis-Whisman (named for streets) Superfund Study Area in Mountain View is one of the largest, most contaminated groundwater contamination sites in Silicon Valley. Since 2007, CPEO has managed the U.S. EPA Technical Assistance Group for MEW. Beginning with our oversight at MEW, we have become nationally recognized experts in community engagement at vapor intrusion sites. See Vapor Intrusion, TCE, and Other VOCs.

Domestic Workforce: From their early days, semiconductor companies utilized a polarized workforce, relying upon well paid white and Asian professionals and using a predominantly female, non-white production workforce. Service contracting—janitorial, security, cafeteria—has been carried out primarily by people of color. Industry has invested heavily in keeping unions out of its production workforce. As the cost of living—thus wages—rose in Silicon Valley, companies moved their wafer fabrication operations elsewhere while keeping professional work concentrated in Silicon Valley.

Global Assembly Line: Starting the 1960s, the semiconductor pioneered the global assembly line, locating each aspect of its work where costs were lowest. Thus assembly, packaging, and testing facilities were located abroad, primarily in East Asia, with a primarily female workforce. In recent years, some U.S. semiconductor companies have kept most of their design work in the U.S. and contracted out wafer fabrication to sophisticated silicon foundries in Taiwan and South Korea.


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