When Intel announced recently that the mega-corporation plans a $3.5 billion investment at its Sandoval County Rio Rancho plant, the news brought some applause from economic development folks, including Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. But for some people who live near the sprawling plant, this brings some apprehension.
At a recent press conference, Intel executives, along with state and local politicos, announced the company’s plans to retool its 350,000-square-foot Sandoval County facility into a hub for advanced semiconductor manufacturing of stacking microprocessors, using a technology called Foveros. Production of a first chip, which is rumored to be fingernail-sized, should be happening in late 2022.
During the reconstruction of the plant, it is expected that there will be 1,000 construction jobs and, when the dust settles, the promise of 700 high-paying jobs over three years. At the end of 2020, the average Intel total compensation was $145,000. Economic gurus say this also means at least 3,000 more jobs in the greater area could be created.
Intel has not made a major investment in New Mexico since 2009. But the company is getting a sweet deal from the government. In all, $5.75 million in Local Economic Development Act funds were given to Intel from the state, Sandoval County and the city of Rio Rancho. Changes made to the Local Economic Development Act during the last special legislative session made it possible to also offer a 50 percent rebate on gross receipt taxes generated during construction. Some estimate this rebate will equal about $14 million in savings. Pretty sweet deal.
Air and Water
The production of computer chips takes a lot of water. A lot of water. And uses a lot of chemicals. Volatile organic compounds, acids and inorganic compounds are disposed of in several ways: consumed in chemical reactions, captured in air pollution control devices, collected as hazardous or non-hazardous waste, emitted from the pollution control devices into the air or released in wastewater.
According to Intel the Rio Rancho plant can pump about 3,250 acre feet of water a year, provided that it offsets the impact by either returning water to the river or purchasing and transferring water rights to its well field. The plant also buys water from the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Authority. An acre foot is the amount of water that it takes to cover one acre of land with one foot of water. Intel says it restored 118 million gallons of water back in 2019.
Under Intel’s Title V synthetic minor source air permit issued by the New Mexico Environment Department, the manufacturer is allowed to release up to 94.7 tons of carbon monoxide, 95.7 tons of nitrogen dioxide, 96.7 tons of volatile organic compounds and 40.3 tons of hazardous air pollutants into the air each year. Very simply put, this means if you gathered up all the invisible particles that come out of the scrubber stacks at the plant and weighed them, you end up with around 325 tons. Intel spokeswoman Erika Edgerly said, currently, the plant is operating under the air permit limits.
Intel has perched above the western bluff overlooking Corrales for about 40 years. During those decades, some residents living to the east in the low-lying areas of Corrales and Rio Rancho have struggled with water and air quality issues. Since at least 1992, these residents have publicly raised concerns about odors and health problems they say are attributed to Intel’s air emissions.
In 2004, with the urging of the New Mexico Environment Department and the Environmental Protection Agency, the Corrales Environmental Working Group was formed to promote community dialog and to advocate for continuous environmental improvements at Intel’s New Mexico plant. The group includes an Intel representative and members from the Corrales Residents for Clean Air and Water, along with other community members. CEWG does not have any real control over Intel but has been able to have discussions with the company and then see some changes. According to the CEWG website, along with an open communication channel with the mega-manufacturer, some of the achievements include Intel raising its emission stacks (chimneys) and adding backup thermal oxidizer pollution controls.
Yet, odor and health complaints still persist, intermittently. As part of the CEWG meetings, a log of calls to the plant regarding odors or other community complaints is shared. The most common description is burnt coffee. At the recent May 19 meeting, one resident called to report an odor similar to burning rubber. According to the reports on the CEWG website, some have said when they smell odors they often get headaches and nausea.
CEWG has made it a priority to track cancer-type cases in and around the plant. During the CEWG May 19 meeting, Dr. Chuck Wiggins from the University of New Mexico gave an update on the cancer and health effects project he is working on to track cancer rates. He said he and his colleagues plan to compile data from 2000 to 2018 regarding cancer rates around the Intel plant. He will be looking at about 12 to 14 census tracts, or neighborhoods, from around the plant.
This current study is in response to another health study done by the state’s Department of Health that was released in 2019. In a nutshell, the DOH study was much less comprehensive in scope. It said any increases found in cancer rates from 2006 to 2015, in the four census tracts looked at, could not be directly attributed to Intel. The group, along with other science-type people, objected to the integrity of the 2019 study. Wiggins and the others think that by having more data from more areas, a clearer picture of what health issues are and what people who live around the plant die from will emerge.
The CEWG group, similar to other working groups formed in places such as Oregon and Arizona, will meet again online at 5:15 pm July 21. Check them out at cewg.org.