The Austin Chronicle

Point Austin: Saying 'No' to AMD

The company moves forward, as the culprits are wiping away their fingerprints

By Michael King, December 23, 2005, News

I hesitate to write anything further about Advanced Micro Devices and its announced move to Southwest Austin, since those deep thinkers down at the Statesman declared the matter closed a week ago. Sneering at anyone who might raise a question about the AMD project – exactly one day after the official site plan was filed and simultaneously blazoned approvingly on the daily's front page – the editors denounced the "fuss" over AMD's decision as "vivid testimony to the inability of some political opponents to take 'yes' for an answer."

Well, excuse us for fussing. We remain under the delusion that the citizens of Austin have not only the right, but the obligation, to ensure good stewardship for the dwindling amount of undeveloped land in our area, most especially those relatively untouched portions that remain in the watersheds for the Edwards Aquifer and Barton Springs. The AMD site, known as Lantana, is in the contributing zone for the aquifer, and barely upstream from the direct recharge zone. The future of the neighboring tracts, and therefore the aquifer's future, could well be determined by the potential development rush likely to be triggered by the relocation of a major employer bringing 2,000 to 3,000 employees to the heart of that area.

But as far as the Statesman is concerned, any further debate has been rendered unnecessary by AMD's site plan, which, by incorporating elaborate "greenbuilding" methods, may well succeed in its specific purposes of protecting this particular acreage from degradation and the streams and aquifer from the pollutants normally associated directly with such a major facility. Therefore any continued opposition, announce the editors, "exposes again the no-growth, no-compromise posture of a core group of naysayers who use the environment to fuel their power trips." My, my – those are strong words for the public opposition of literally thousands of Austinites, naysaying power-trippers all, who have repeatedly expressed their common sentiments over the past two decades against intensive development in the southwest watershed, and who have most recently signed on in great numbers to SOS petitions to persuade AMD to settle elsewhere.

Noblesse Oblige

Not content to dismiss the opposition as extremist, the Statesman has to misstate the political process that has brought AMD to this point. "From the outset," they write, "AMD's project has given top priority – not to mention extra expense – to meeting environmental concerns." Actually, from the outset AMD and CEO Hector Ruiz were set to move forward with their own plans with little input from the city or anybody else. The street buzz was that Ruiz, having been an official at Motorola when that company was dissuaded from an aquifer relocation by public opposition, swore that he would never again let "the Lilliputians" tell him how to run his business.

This time around, it was only when AMD was stung by widespread public criticism that company officials realized they would have to tread very carefully to save themselves from an outright public relations disaster. By their own admission (perhaps the Statesman editors should read their reporters' coverage), when they called in independent environmental consultants, they were told the original construction plans would have to be completely scrapped, reconfigured, and re-engineered, if the company was to approach the sort of environmental protection that they said they desired.

To AMD's credit, they listened to the outside consultants, and in collaboration have designed a site plan that appears to be as sustainable and preservation-oriented as possible under the circumstances. They hope to leave a small footprint, bring much of the land back to a reasonably natural state, and (most importantly) reduce storm-water runoff and therefore watershed pollution to as low a level as seems possible for this kind of construction. That effort is to be commended – but to believe that it would have happened without the firm public presence of those environmental "naysayers," not to mention a generation of local public activism on environmental issues (consistently opposed or disdained by the daily), is to be living in a delusory world of corporate benevolence.

A hundred fifty years ago, there were no doubt statesman-like overseers on East Texas plantations who broadcast the same sort of opinions of their masters to the unhired help.

Just Say No

All of which discussion remains only preamble to the central issue concerning the AMD plans. Even if their own facility succeeds in being as pristine as advertised (a big if), what happens to the longstanding community determination to keep major employers off the watershed, because major employers inevitably bring along with them intensive residential and commercial development, exploding traffic, and consequent demands for public infrastructure that is not only polluting but exponentially expensive. That adds insult to injury, for it effectively forces the public that opposed the development in the first place to subsidize its expansion, and thereby to take the blame for the results we tried to prevent – while the corporate managers sponsor black-tie banquets to give themselves and their bosses headline-grabbing "greenbuilding" awards.

I asked Allyson Peerman, AMD's director of global community affairs (no doubt a considerable burden), in light of the company's visible determination to protect this particular site, for her response to the prediction that, as former Council Member Brigid Shea puts it, the AMD facility will inevitably become "an island of compliance [with environmental standards] in an ocean of noncompliance." Peerman replied, "Our basic premise is that this area is developing now, and that development will continue. ... We approached this project on the assumption that this building will continue, and we will use our human and financial resources in a responsible way, and reach out to others as an educational resource."

No doubt the California and New York investors in new Southwest apartment houses, convenience stores, strip malls, big boxes, and gas stations will take those words to heart as they make plans to follow AMD (and Stratus, né Freeport-McMoRan) into the watershed. To me, it sounds very much like Dr. John's lament of apologetic betrayal, "If I don't do it, somebody else will." And I suppose the folks who worked so diligently on "greenbuilding" for AMD can also use it to sing themselves to sleep at night, down the years, as the once-clear waters flow dark and darker underground. end story

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