Boiling Frogs-Intel vs. the Village

"Boiling Frogs - Intel vs. the Village" recounts the story of Intel Rio Rancho's impact on the air and water in the Village of Corrales from the mid-1980s to the present day. Updates to this ongoing saga will be posted here.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Intel Responds - Thanks to Whistleblowers

Written by Jeff Radford
Fourth and final in a series

Since the politically messy blow-up of the Corrales Air Toxics Study in early summer 2004, Intel has:
• replaced the troublesome incinerators that are supposed to burn off tons of industrial solvents;
• installed back-up units to capture and burn those volatile organic compounds (VOCs) when incinerators fail or shut down for maintenance;
• raised the height of the “smoke” stacks substantially to better disperse pollution plumes and decrease the likelihood that wind patterns will send fumes roiling into nearby neighborhoods;
• improved the efficiency of the water-spray scrubbers that remove acid gases before production line fumes are released to the air;
• substituted a better, tightly-controlled method for adding bacteria-killing chemicals to the massive cooling towers so that larger amounts of hazardous bromoform don’t cause airway breathing spasms in nearby homeowners or passersby;
• eliminated cyanide compounds used in the manufacturing process and dismantled the cyanide destruction unit suspected by an Intel whistleblower of causing illnesses;
• reduced the use of the “hazardous air pollutant” (HAP) hexafluoroethane, suspected as a leading culprit for sicknesses reported by nearby residents;
• eliminated the chemical hexamethyldisilazane (HMDS) which, when incinerated, produces a fine silica dust suspected of causing lung fibrosis; and
• agreed to fund an independent, citizen-controlled testing of silica dust released to the air when HMDS is burned in the incinerators to find out whether the fine particles are the dangerous sharp-edged crystalline kind or the more innocuous amorphous silica.

Those changes to Intel’s operations here were not demanded by regulators in the N.M. Air Quality Bureau —in fact, the agency cannot impose such requirements on Intel.
And the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) which delegates regulatory authority to the state bureau, may have relatively little leverage with which to force Intel to better control its chemical emissions.
While EPA initiated an enforcement action against Intel a year ago and staged a thorough inspection of the Intel facilities here last December, a serious crack-down on operations at the microchip factory next door may not happen.
That’s because essentially no health-based air quality standards have been set for most of the toxic chemicals Intel and other industries use, even though many are lethal in small doses.
Regulations on release of these chemicals to the air citizens breathe cannot be enforced because, for the most part, there are no regulations.
The writing of regulations for HAPs that would implement the 1963 federal Clean Air Act and amendments in 1970, ’77 and ’90 has mostly not been accomplished for technical, and largely political, reasons.
Ambient air quality standards exist for just six air pollutants for which criteria have been set: carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxides, nitrogen oxides, lead, ground-level ozone and particulate matter.
As Air Quality Bureau Chief Mary Uhl explained, “We do have the authority to say ‘This facility is exceeding national health-base standards for one of the criteria air pollutants,’ but the toxics are not included in that.
“There are no criteria for those toxic chemicals.”

If there are no federal or state limits on how much toxic chemicals Intel or any other factory can dump into the air we breathe, is there no way to limit exposures downwind residents must endure?
Yes, there is, if Intel voluntarily discovers and adopts those ways.
And those anti-pollution measures may even be written into Intel’s State-issued permit —but only if Intel agrees.
Policies set at the Intel corporate level call for ongoing reductions in usage of toxic chemicals, and that does happen to some extent.
However, when a non-toxic microchip making process was invented by a scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratories in the late 1990s, Corrales Residents for Clean Air and Water (CRCAW) urged Intel to switch to that new process using super-critical carbon dioxide and far less water.
Intel showed little interest in the new process; the massive re-tooling of the facilities here in 2008-09 did not incorporate that innovation.
In the course of implementing the corporation’s chosen new manufacturing technology, Intel added three new HAPs for which it must track usage and eliminated five others. Its State air pollution permit includes more than 40 HAPs, including cyanide and other highly poisonous substances such as hydrogen fluoride. 
The facility here can release to the air up to nine tons a year of any of those toxic chemicals and a total of 29 tons a year for all HAPs combined. The permit allows Intel to release many other State-listed “toxic air pollutants” (TAPs) and up to 96.5 tons a year of volatile organic compounds.
Citizens affected by Intel’s air pollution have argued for more than a decade that short-term limits should be set for how much of those chemicals can be released. Critics have pointed out that Intel could release so much of a toxic chemical within five minutes that it killed everyone in a half-mile radius and still not have exceeded the annual limit set in the permit.
Now there’s hope change may be coming.
Air Quality Bureau Chief Uhl said EPA officials investigating Intel’s compliance with the Clean Air Act are focused on the adequacy of that permit and whether short-term limits should be set.
“The over-arching issue —and I think Intel would agree with this— is whether this is a ‘major source’ or a ‘minor source’” of air pollution, Uhl recalled. “That was readily apparent,” from her discussions with EPA.
If EPA determines that the bureau’s permit for Intel should be withdrawn and re-issued with regulations suitable for a major polluter, the new permit may, or may not, set hourly, daily or monthly emissions limits, Uhl cautioned.
EPA’s report on its December investigation at Intel-Rio Rancho is to be released this summer. A separate “community health consultation” initiated in 2004 by a citizen’s petition to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry is also expected this summer.
Whatever regulatory changes may lie ahead, it seems clear that, absent comprehensive federal standards for most of Intel’s industrial chemicals, improvements to air quality for Intel downwinders will depend on the chipmaker’s voluntary corrections and improvements.

A citizen involvement process to nudge that along has been functioning since August 2004 when Intel set up a Community Environmental Working Group (CEWG) in the aftermath of the inconclusive, disappointing 2002-04 Corrales Air Toxics Study.
The Intel-funded committee includes long-time members of New Mexicans for Clean Air and Water and is chaired by that group’s John Bartlit.
CRCAW’s Roberta King and Lynne Kinis have regularly attended CEWG monthly meetings as “members of the public” rather than committee members to avoid lending legitimacy to what they regard as an Intel public relations effort.
Bartlit insists CEWG has produced solid improvements, including most of those listed at the beginning of this article.
Some, perhaps much, of that improvement might be credited to the decades of demands by CRCAW members as well as to Uhl’s leadership on the Corrales Air Toxics Study, and even more to the charges made by Intel whistleblowers George Evans and Chris Grosbeck. (See Corrales Comment Vol.XXII, No.10, July 5, 2003 “Second Intel Whistleblower Goes Public”)
“Government agencies can do only what they have legal authority to do,” Bartlit pointed out. “They have to follow established procedures for adopting and enforcing rules, which involve prescribed scientific methods and legal steps. The end result is a sizeable and unavoidable time-lag in acquiring adequate data on the effects of pollutants on urban populations, using the methods of science.
“There is a further sizeable and unavoidable time-lag in formulating these data into specific regulations and restrictions on any given industry.”
Decades can pass before collected data and analysis turn into regulations, he explained. And in the fast-paced semiconductor industry, technologies and chemical compounds applied will likely always be years ahead of regulations.
“Therefore, the CEWG applies its experience to reduce emissions more swiftly by other means,” Bartlit continued. “The CEWG works by probing Intel operations with Intel engineers and finding opportunities for more rapid improvements. The community-involved process has produced specific reductions in chemical emissions at Intel. The approach is the same one used to make better computers or better anything —continuous improvement.”
Bartlit listed seven specific improvements at Intel he feels were achieved by CEWG’s collaboration.
“None of the changes made could be required by state or federal regulators. Worthwhile changes have achieved the following:
• eliminated most of the unabated emissions during scheduled maintenance of pollution controls by shortening the time the controls are off for routine maintenance;
• reduced the total emissions of biocides from cooling towers, by installing controls that add smaller amounts of biocide to cooling water as needed;
• reduced the amount of isopropyl alcohol that is used at the plant and emitted to the air;
• added certain redundant (back up) pollution controls to reduce unabated emissions while work is done on controls;
• raised the heights of stacks that emit pollutants (height was increased by about seven meters, roughly half the CEWG’s recommended increase) to reduce peak concentrations of pollutants at ground level;
• removed rain caps from stacks to reduce peak concentrations of pollutants at ground level;
• improved the operation (raised the pH, or acidity balance) of a control process to achieve better removal of 1-heptanethiol from air emissions.”
The group has given a lot of attention to establishing a “citizen protocol” for independent testing of Intel emissions due to widespread public distrust of Intel’s own test results and those produced by its consultants. For a test case, the CEWG has chosen to test Intel’s silica releases that are a byproduct of incinerating the solvent HMDS.
The temperature at which the compound is burned at Intel along with other VOCs is a near-match for that which would produce the more dangerous crystalline silica. (See Corrales Comment’s six-part series on silica and other pollutants starting in Vol.XX, No.13, August 25, 2001 “Larry Vigil Blamed Intel for Fatal Lung Disease.”)
“The N.M. Air Quality Bureau is more likely to give prompt support for the test the more strongly the community says they want the silica testing done,” Bartlit noted. “Again, we see the various pressures that help produce actions on issues.”
At CEWG’s next meeting, Wednesday, March 17, 5-7 p.m. in the Corrales Senior Center, discussion will focus on recent chemical use changes and emissions from Intel that might have led to an increase in nearby residents’ complaints as Intel’s new technology went into operation.

The rash of complaints last fall and this winter, some from villagers who say Intel’s pollution is now as bad as ever, leads some observers to question CEWG’s value.
As CRCAW’s Fred Marsh wrote recently, “We’re deeply indebted to three courageous Intel employees and three former N.M. Environment Department employes whose “inside Intel” information confirmed our suspicions. Most Intel changes during the past few years were encouraged by the Intel whistleblowers, although doing so cost them their jobs.
“Yet Bartlit wants credit for what these former Intel employees initiated and what CRCAW has fought for during the past two decades.
“Nearby residents have recently reported that Intel’s toxic emissions are as bad as they have ever been. Is Bartlit willing to take credit for these probably higher actual releases, or only the fictitious calculated emissions that Intel reports?
“I can justify the word ‘fictitious’ because no supporting evidence has ever been provided or requested for Intel emission factors.
“And I keep citing the example in Intel’s fourth quarter report of 2003 when 1.4 tons of carcinogenic carbon tetrachloride was actually measured, yet Intel reported their calculated zero release.”
As might be expected, Intel officials downplay any relevance to allegations made by employee whistleblowers.
Intel Environmental Health and Safety Manager Sarah Chavez was asked in an interview January 21 whether the significant changes made in equipment and operations around the Central Utility Building (CUB) were implemented as a result of problems raised by former Intel Rio Rancho industrial hygienist George Evans in 2003.
Evans charged Intel was deliberately covering up pollution problems and had ordered him to do air sampling that would be misleading. He identified the CUB and surrounding equipment, particularly the acid gas scrubbers and the cyanide destruct unit, as one source of air contamination that might be causing health problems among nearby residents.
Asked about changes around the CUB, Chavez replied, “I will tell you that the cyanide destruct system is no longer in operation. That system has been shut down; that chemical is no longer used in the process.
“We had to remove cyanide from the waste water which is why we had to have that treatment system. It’s been gone for at least a couple years now.”
And other changes at the CUB which Evans recommended have been made. “A few years ago Intel allocated $6 million to look at scrubbers and make sure they had redundancy and other improvements. The CUB scrubbers were included in that. How it related to anything alleged by George Evans, I wouldn’t know,” Chavez said.
Evans also insisted, internally and then as a whistleblower when his concerns were disregarded, that the ammonia waste stream coming to the CUB should be segregated from other chemicals to allow the pollution control systems to operate effectively.
Asked about that, Chavez replied, “There is ammonia segregation for scrubbers across the site. Whether that was directly a result of George Evan’s allegations, again, I don’t know. They’ve been doing that over time. I don’t know specifically when it was started.
“ Intel’s plan of record now is to have segregated ammonia exhaust.”
Incinerators and scrubbers are the two main air pollution control equipment at the Intel facilities. The incinerators burn off the VOCs (mostly solvents) and the acid gas scrubbers clean HAPs, TAPs and basically anything not routed to the incinerators.
But the removal efficiency of scrubbers has been poor at best. As a result of process changes, the efficiency is now much better, as Chavez explained. “Early on the mind-set was to send all the exhaust to the scrubbers. Now they’ve tried to basically remove exhaust that doesn’t have emissions, so you could have a more concentrated exhaust stream.”
And that, she explained, significantly improves the removal efficiency.
But the down-side is acid gases are more concentrated coming out of the scrubbers if the equipment fails.
Intel’s community environmental manager, Thom Little, reported at the February 17 CEWG meeting that neighborhood complaint calls had increased recently “when the pH control was lost on the scrubbers” due to a water line break.
A Washington Post news article January 4 reported that Congress is expected to write new regulations for chemicals this year to update the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act.
According to the article by Lyndsey Layton, an estimated 700 new chemical compounds are brought onto the market each year. Roughly 17,000 compounds on the market today are labeled “secret;” that is, their molecular structure is proprietary information, and not available to the public, and often not even to regulators.
Intel’s latest permit revision includes several secret chemicals that are identified only by brand name.
CRCAW’s Fred Marsh, a retired Los Alamos labs chemist, has repeatedly raised concerns about Intel’s use of chemicals for which public health standards do not exist. “For more than two decades Intel has been allowed to release multi-ton quantities of chemical compounds whose safe limits have never been determined,” he said March 1. “Even worse is that Intel releases these as mixtures whose toxicities can be increased by orders of magnitude by synergistic effects.
“In a very real sense, Intel’s neighbors have served as guinea pigs during their long exposures to these untested chemical compounds and mixtures.”
While Bartlit and others commend Intel for taking steps to address community complaints, that process may leave affected neighbors and Intel staffers alike feeling as though they’re under constant attack.
Community tensions produced by ongoing complaint-based improvements erupted at an October 27, 2005 meeting.
Intel’s director of corporate responsibility, Dave Stangis, remarked, “What you need to do is push us, so we can continue to push this envelope” of incorporating cleaner, safer technology.
The comment was resented by at least one member of the audience, Corrales’ Joy Tschawuschian. She has complained of health problems from Intel for nearly two decades.
She replied: “I don’t like the sound of having to ‘push’ Intel. I’m tired of pushing Intel. I’ve been pushing Intel since 1989. Now how much longer do I have to push Intel?
“I’m tired of pushing my windows closed on a hot summer night. I’m tired of pushing Intel.”
Intel’s Mindy Koch got the point but added, “I want to acknowledge that because of the pushing on Intel, I think it makes us better. It pushes us to do things that are better than our other sites are doing, putting in other improvements.”
Intel officials were provided a courtesy copy of this article for review and comment. Communications Manager Elizabeth Shipley responded as follows. “The CEWG was established in 2004 and is committed to making continuous environmental improvements. The CEWG membership includes representatives from the N.M. Citizens for Clean Air and Water, Intel’s Environmental Health and Safety Group and concerned citizens.
“We are pleased that this unique collaboration has produced significant improvements including voluntary upgrades to our emissions equipment. We encourage members of our community to participate in the discussion.”


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