By Jeff Radford
Even as Intel readied its production lines to produce its new, stacked photonic computer chips, the factory on the escarpment above Corrales was running at 89.2 percent of capacity this month. Intel officials declined to say when they will begin mass producing the new chips, but conceded at their December 15 Community Environmental Working Group (CEWG) Zoom meeting that chemical emissions will increase when that happens.
According to draft minutes of that meeting, a CEWG member from Corrales, Dennis O’Mara, asked whether Intel would release emissions above current levels as a result of the expansion. Intel’s primary representative on the committee, Sarah Chavez, replied that “Intel expected emissions to increase as the existing technology became operational.”
According to draft minutes, O’Mara, who moved here after retiring from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, asked Chavez for a ball park estimate of how much the emissions into the air would increase. She said she could not answer because Intel “did not know what the future would look like.”
Market forces affecting demand for the new chips presumably would drive production levels. Chavez then declined to say when production of those chips is expected to begin, saying that was confidential information which, if disclosed, might give chip competitors an advantage. Although the air above Corrales may become more polluted with waste industrial chemicals in the months ahead, villagers got better news early in January when Intel announced it will begin getting water needed for chip production from two Rio Rancho wells six miles away.
Over time, that should allay Corraleños’ concerns over depletion of the aquifer from which domestic wells pump. For more than a decade, Intel has pumped an estimated two to three million gallons of water every day. In 2020 Intel pumped more than 756 million gallons of groundwater, or more than two million gallons a day.
According to the project announced January 6, the two City of Rio Rancho wells six miles to the west that were abandoned due to excess arsenic levels will begin delivering water to Intel by the end of 2022.
O’Mara told Corrales Comment that Intel has signaled it will no longer pump potable water, which, presumably means that by early 2023, Intel will no longer pump from its own wells above Corrales.
More immediately, he and others in the newly-reconstituted Clean Air for All Now (formerly Corrales Residents for Clean Air and Water) citizens’ group are demanding that the N.M. Environment Department (NMED) Air Quality Bureau regulate Intel as a major source of pollution.
More than a decade ago, the bureau initiated a “major source” permit for Intel, but that was quashed by Intel. (See Corrales Comment Vol.XXXII No.17 October 19, 2013 First in a four-part series “Intel Will Be Regulated As Major Source of Air Pollution.” and Vol.XXXIV No.7 May 23, 2015 “Intel No Longer Regulated as Major Pollution Source.”)
The “major source” permit for Intel was revoked on August 6, 2014 at Intel’s request when state regulation reverted to the earlier “minor source” permit No. 325.
Back in 2004, the bureau’s Jim Shively insisted Intel’s air pollution permit had to be withdrawn and developed anew.
A former bureau permit enforcement manager, Debby Brinkerhoff, told Corrales Comment at the time that 80 percent of the bureau’s staffers supported Shively’s position. She cited incidents in which she was directly involved where NMED higher-ups aborted enforcement action against Intel when stack tests revealed excessive acid gas emissions. “We were never allowed to issue a notice of violations,” Brinkerhoff recalled in 2004.
But the political hierarchy within State government with rare exceptions declined to take corrective steps.
Shively said the political courage within NMED to call for corrections was lacking. “In my gut, I think they know this permit is not right and needs to be re-opened. But I don’t think they want to go there.
“To re-open this permit is not a safe thing for them to do. There’s a risk involved [for NMED officials]. This is a large, influential corporation, and there’s a risk involved if you mess with them.”
Scuderi also questioned her about modeling for State-regulated toxins not covered by EPA regulations. He pointed out that results of modeling for New Mexico’s list of toxic air pollutants (TAPs) are not in the pending permit. He said it was not clear whether Intel maintained it did not emit any of those more than 500 carcinogens listed, or that the expansion would not change what is being released now. Chavez replied that Intel does release some of those TAP chemicals, but none of them above a level that would need to be modeled.
Days after he retired in 2004, Shively wrote a letter to N.M. Environment Secretary Ron Curry —now Corrales’ Village Administrator— outlining his concerns about the Intel permit.
In his letter, Shively gave reasons why he considered the current air pollution permit to be a sham, as defined by a federal policy memorandum.
“The permit is impractical and unenforceable. This has been repeated and emphasized many times and by many people during the review process and since.”
Shively’s 2004 letter said he had supplied the names of 16 other former NMED employees who shared his concerns about the Intel permit and how it was approved.
Shively said the permit “is written with the emission factors provided by Intel that have never been independently validated. The department cannot determine Intel’s air emissions, nor can the factors or emissions be determined with any real confidence or precision.”
The result, Shively pointed out, was that “Intel can’t be found in violation of the emission limits in the permit. Only Intel knows the origin or validity of the factors.”
Intel’s Permit No. 325-Modification 9, approved in March 2000 to cover the massive Fab 11-X expansion, was based almost entirely on calculating emissions of industrial pollutants, rather than measuring them. Those calculations were based on “emission factors,” or multipliers, generated at Intel’s research and development facility in Oregon.
Documents and notes in the N.M.Air Quality Bureau files on the Intel permit as far back at 1994 reveal that Shively repeatedly sought independent verification of those emissions factors.
Unless the bureau had some means of checking or validating the emissions factors, he said, state regulators were left only with Intel’s word that emissions did not exceed limits set in the permit.
NMED Secretary Curry took no action back in 2004 when Shively and other Air Quality Bureau officials and former officials urged that a more protective permit be written for Intel’s operations here.
In subsequent years, Curry was appointed regional administrator for EPA’s office in Dallas.
Back in 1994, when Curry was NMED’s deputy secretary, he said state regulators were wary and uncertain about prospects for imposing restrictions on Intel. (See Corrales Comment Vol. XIII, No.13 August 20, 1994 “Intel, Corrales In Step For Tighter Air Quality Regulations.”)
“We knew they were big and getting bigger,” Curry recalled in 1994. “Intel was like a giant gorilla, and we weren’t sure how to get a hold of this gorilla; we didn’t know if this gorilla would let us get hold of it.”
Rio Rancho realtor Marcy Brandenburg, who attended the December 2021 CEWG meeting, observed “Intel needs to quit talking about how they follow the rules when there are literally no rules to follow. The EPA is a sieve.”
The old “minor source” permit issued by the N.M. Air Quality Bureau allowed Intel to release to the air up to 24 tons annually of federally-designated Hazardous Air Pollutants, more tons of state-designated Toxic Air Pollutants, 96.5 tons a year of volatile organic compounds (mostly solvents) and 14.2 tons yearly of particulate matter (mostly silica dust).
The air pollution permit that Intel now seeks to receive will not be subject to a public hearing unless citizens demand it. Those emissions ceilings would not change under the proposed permit, but Intel tends to demonstrate that it will meet state and federal air quality regulations by submitting results of computer modeling for emissions dispersal.
Another Corrales participant in the CEWG meetings, Louis Scuderi, will analyze those modeled air pollution results. He is a University of New Mexico geology professor who has specialized in remote sensing and global positioning systems. He is studying the effects of Intel’s chemical emissions on vegetation in the surrounding area.
O’Mara explained that Intel and NMED have agreed that a new permit is not needed, since the chip-maker would keep the existing pollution control equipment and add one new incinerator to burn off volatile organic compounds.
“Instead they are moving a number of the existing thermal oxidizers and scrubbers from the southern part of the campus to the north end where the new production is going to take place,” he said.
Scuderi has sent an extensive critique of the application to NMED and has demanded that they provide him with the modeling done by the Intel contractor.
The next CEWG meeting will be held February 16 starting at 5:15 p.m. It has usually met at the Corrales Senior Center, although its meetings are now via Zoom. A long-time member of that group, Hugh Church, representing the local branch of the American Lung Association, died January 4. Another long-time CEWG member, air pollution dispersion modeler Mike Williams, died in December.
At the December CEWG meeting, Chavez said NMED had asked Intel to do computer modeling for pollution dispersion since a lot of equipment has been relocated.
At that meeting, Scuderi questioned Chavez closely about the modeling and asked for a copy of the complete report. He was told he could request that from NMED. He said he was concerned that almost all of the pollution control equipment was to be moved to the northern part of the Intel campus, thereby concentrating a high number of pollution sources in one small area.
Scuderi has reported effects from Intel’s pollution at his home near the top of Tierra Encantada. At the December CEWG meeting, he criticized the modeling for not addressing possible recombination of concentrated emissions from multiple units in a small area with other toxic chemicals.
It was an issue that Corrales residents have raised repeatedly since 2000; although Intel insists it does not use certain toxic chemicals, they have been detected in the air around Intel, possibly having been formed inside air ducts or in the open air.
At the CEWG meeting, Chavez responded to Scuderi that Intel’s waste chemicals are not mixing to form other toxins.