[Outlook]Ecology as a political tool

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[Outlook]Ecology as a political tool

In 1998, IBM changed its semiconductor process, replacing aluminum with copper, a material that transfers electricity more efficiently. This change carries an important message.
Before the change took place, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the world’s leading technical college, did research on copper’s influence on the environment, the processing methods and the level of regulations.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and MIT found reasonable ways to offset any negative environmental effects based on scientific data. This is very different from Korea’s case, where an entire country fights over the expansion of a Hynix Semiconductor factory complex.
It is reasonable for the government to pursue the policy of regional development in a bid to help local areas prosper. But when examining expansion of the Hynix factories in Icheon, one must take into account the harsh reality of capitalism, in which companies must survive fierce competition among multinational corporations.
The Hynix issue should not be treated as a fight among different regions and political factions. It has national implications ― Korea could fall behind other countries. What is needed is a group of people brainstorming to find solutions. Now, let’s look at the reality.
The Environmental Protection Agency did not view copper discharged by IBM into Lake Champlain, the source of water for Burlington, Vermont and Plattsburgh, New York as a major issue.
The agency focused on regulating the sludge produced in the process, which is fundamentally different from Korea’s case. The environmental agency delayed defining noxious sludge and allowed IBM to find its own ways to recycle sludge and reduce air pollution.
The replacement of aluminum with copper is seen as being environmentally friendly because this new technology increases electricity savings by 30 to 40 percent and reduces the fluoric compounds that are used in the rinsing process.
Meanwhile, in Korea, environmental organizations are opposing the expansion of the complex and the Ministry of the Environment seems to be siding with the groups.
Copper is an essential element of plants and animals. In rain water, the level of copper is 12 parts per billion (ppb); in lakes and rivers it is from 50 to 100 ppb.
Hynix Semiconductor says when purifying water it would produce copper levels of 8 ppb.
A level of copper lower than that found in rainwater does no harm to the ecosystem.
As a point of reference, in the United States the action level of copper in tap water is 1,300 ppb, while Korea has set the level at 1,000 ppb.
Environmental groups and the Ministry of the Environment recently avoided the copper issue and have been repeating their stance that a semiconductor factory using some 100 harmful elements cannot be built in the protected area near the Paldang Reservoir.
In advanced countries, harmful materials produced in semiconductor factories are not released into waters and if they are released, the authorities do not make an issue of it because the quantity is very little. If Korea’s environmental organizations continue to argue, even though they know the truth, they are deceiving the people.
The technology to process sewage and use it as tap water has been developed and is to be put into use in the near future.
In some parts of the United States, this method is already used in areas where there is a shortage of water.
Under the current environmental laws, it is prohibited to build facilities that release certain harmful substances that pollute water, including copper compounds, in the protected area near the Paldang Reservoir, regardless of the volume of discharge.
That means, the expansion of the Hynix complex is impossible under the current law.
But at least they should stop citing the harmfulness of copper as a reason to prohibit the expansion. In semiconductor industries, time actually is money.
The sooner the decision is made, the better.
Koreans living abroad, including myself, miss Korea dearly.
But it is sad to see that in Korea, engineers are still treated badly. We worry about the future of our homeland where arguments by politicians and environmental groups are more powerful than an engineer’s words.
It is wrong to approach environmental issues from a political standpoint.
The issue should be dealt with scientifically in order to make the country more competitive and the future more prosperous.

*The writer is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Park Jae-kwang
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