It takes a lot of chemicals and a lot of water to make even faster, smaller computer chips.
And that is what Intel, the mega-chip maker that sprawls above the western bluff overlooking Corrales, plans to do with the massive $3.5 billion retooling of its 350,000-square-foot Sandoval County facility. The giant company will turn the plant into a hub for advanced semiconductor manufacturing of stacking microprocessors. Production of the first fingernail-sized chip is projected for late 2022.
What’s Going on With Intel?
Intel has perched above the western bluff overlooking Corrales for about 40 years. Some residents who have lived, or currently live, in the east low-lying areas of Corrales and Rio Rancho, have had to deal with water issues such as wells dropping and air quality issues. Since at least the early 1990s, these residents have publicly raised concerns about odors and health problems that they say are attributed to Intel’s air emissions.
In 2004, with the urging of the state Environment Department and the Environmental Protection Agency, the Community 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 Intel representatives, members from Clean Air For All Now (formerly called 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 about their concerns.
Yet, odor and health complaints continue to roll in. And nearby residents have concerns that, when the plant ramps up, emissions will increase. At the Oct. 20 meeting of the Community Environmental Working Group, Intel representatives handled some tough questions about recent developments as the mega-computer company moves forward with its plans.
What Does It Take To Produce a Chip?
The production of computer chips takes a lot of water. And uses a lot of chemicals. We are talking about 250 volatile organic compounds, not including dozens of acids and inorganic compounds. These 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 after being rinsed off the chips.
Breathe It In
Intel’s current Title V Synthetic Minor Source Air Permit was issued by the New Mexico Environment Department. It allows the manufacturer to release up to 94.7 tons of carbon monoxide, 95.7 tons of nitrogen dioxide, 96.7 tons of volatile organic compounds and 95 tons of hazardous air pollutants into the air each year. This means, if you gathered up all the invisible particles that come out of the plant’s scrubber stacks and actually weighed them, that is what they would total.
Intel representatives at the October CEWG meeting said that the company is not planning on any revisions to the air permit and that the revamping will comply with the current permit limits.
While this sounds like good news, Marcy Brandenburg, a member of Clean Air For All Now, said at the meeting that, to protect the neighbors around the plant, Intel should be required to operate under a Major Source Pollution Air Permit. She said one reason is that a Major Source Permit provides oversight and protection by an impartial and disinterested third party. It also provides for enforcement. Another problem with a Minor Source, she said, is that Intel is only required to self report its data. Brandenburg also said Intel should be required to install the latest and newest emissions abatement equipment, as some of the ones installed now are nearly 25 years old.
Slurp It Up
Recently, the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Authority approved $1 million to fund a project to supply Intel with up to a maximum of three million gallons of water a day. The money is to design the project, and Intel will reimburse the bucks and pay for whatever infrastructure is needed such as a well collector line. According to the Water Authority, the two Westside wells that will be used for the project have never been used for drinking water. Back in the early 2000s, the city had to deal with a number of its wells having high levels of arsenic, and it had shut many down.
Intel needs super clean water, so it will treat the water on-site for use and return about 2.4 million a day into the utility wastewater system to be treated before being discharged into the Rio Grande. Intel has had to buy up water rights from farmers and other irrigators to be able to pump enough water for its manufacturing process. The Water Authority has said this will not strain water deliveries on the Westside. When pressed, Intel representatives did not know exactly where the wells were located or who would be taking the arsenic out of the water. They said they would get back to the group at the next meeting.
Dennis O’Mara, a member of the Clean Air For All Now (CAFANOW) group, said they have three top projects: a study of the rates of various kinds of cancers in the 14 census tracts that abut or are near to the Intel plant; a study of the potential impact of Intel emissions on the health of vegetation in concentric circles around Intel using GIS, satellite imaging and sophisticated software technology, and an effort to collect air “grab samples” for analysis to try to determine at least some of what Intel is releasing into our air. The group would also like a hearing on the air permit even though the company has not asked for any revisions. There are currently no hearings publicly announced for the air permit. O’Mara said there is a petition on the CAFANOW website that folks can sign in order to get a public hearing. Check it out at cafanow.com
The next meeting of the Community Environmental Working Group is set for 5:15pm, Nov. 17 at cewg.org