COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — John Bartlit can point to the exact moment he wanted to be an environmentalist.

As a young chemical engineer in New Mexico in the 1960s, he paid little mind to air pollution. Some happens, he thought, but companies will do their best to keep it down.

But when someone from his town, he said, showed the state legislature clear aerial photos of harmful smoke spewing from a coal-fired power plant — and when lawmakers and utility officials scoffed at the guy’s concerns — Bartlit’s mind changed.

“A fair case can be argued in public for and against any question of pollution,” he wrote to the local newspaper after an expert in another state told him about pollution controls not being used in New Mexico.

“The same cannot be said for misleading people.”

Now, at age 87, Bartlit leads a group that does more than advocate for cleaner air. It’s the key go-between for community-industry relations regarding air pollution from Intel’s computer chip factory outside Albuquerque.

And the unique model this group has set, Bartlit says, could guide Ohioans who are concerned about future air pollution from Intel’s massive, upcoming factory outside New Albany.

Representing all sides

Intel has multiple sprawling campuses across the U.S., but the plant in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, has faced possibly the most criticism from people living nearby, complaining of health effects they connect to air pollution.

When these complaints came to a head in 2004, citizens and Intel agreed to form a panel that seeks to improve the plant’s environmental impact and foster a dialogue between the company and locals.

The Community Environmental Working Group (CEWG) has three official members: Bartlit, local environmental activist Dennis O’Mara and Intel environmental engineer Sarah Chavez. O’Mara declined and Chavez did not respond to interview requests for this story.

Bartlit, the group’s acting chair, spent three decades as a chemical engineer at Los Alamos National Laboratory, and he represented the public for five years on a state commission studying the environmental impact of mining.

John Bartlit, acting chair of the Community Environmental Working Group, speaks during a meeting on Feb. 16, 2022. CEWG facilitates dialogue between Intel and people who live near its New Mexico semiconductor plant. (Screenshot/Zoom)

“A really good committee has strong advocates for one side and strong advocates for another side and then strong advocates for the process,” he said.

Anyone can attend and speak at CEWG’s bimonthly meetings, where members, locals, and Intel discuss concerns and often hear from invited expert speakers.

The group is unique to Intel’s New Mexico operation. While environmental complaints are also lobbed at the company’s computer chip factories outside Portland, Oregon, and Phoenix, neither community has a CEWG.

“To the CEWG, meeting all the rules is not a sufficient goal, “Bartlit said. “It’s certainly a worthy goal and a necessary goal. … But we’ve done many things to reduce emissions. They were all things that could not be required by law.”

Curbing pollution, investigating harm

CEWG can point to multiple accomplishments in its 17 years, Bartlit said, that have decreased air pollution or lessened its impact on nearby residents.

Intel’s smokestacks at the Rio Rancho plant originally stood 20 meters tall, but CEWG research and advocacy showing less air pollution would fall on adjacent communities if the stacks were raised eventually got stacks raised to 40 meters.

“Dispersing pollution is not the goal; the goal is to reduce and eliminate pollution,” Bartlit said of CEWG. “But dispersing the pollution does reduce the highest concentrations with the people that it’s most bothersome to. And it does that by spraying it over a larger area.”

An aerial view shows the Intel Rio Rancho campus in New Mexico and surrounding communities. (Credit: Intel Corporation)

Another CEWG win, though, did reduce air pollution coming from the stacks. The cleaning equipment that abates toxic emissions needs to periodically shut down for maintenance, which used to last 36-48 hours because parts had to cool down and maintenance staff only worked regular hours.

“The CEWG said, ‘Well, you run your plant, you produce chips around the clock. Couldn’t you do the maintenance work around the clock?” Bartlit recalled.

And because of CEWG’s persistence, advocacy, and expertise — including a member’s professional experience with air dispersion modeling and Bartlit’s chance meeting with the plant’s leader — Intel sped up the maintenance schedule and emissions fell.

“I would say a number of the things that we have done I think will carry over to Ohio,” Bartlit said.

Intel’s latest permit with the New Mexico Environment Department allows about 100 tons per year of multiple toxic compounds like carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and chemicals considered to be “volatile organic compounds.”

NMED data from 2020 requested by NBC4 shows Intel’s emissions were small fractions of what they’re allowed. The longstanding issue for people living near the plant, then, is not if Intel is overpolluting, but if its emissions are harming them.

CEWG has commissioned or examined multiple scientific studies of how air pollution has affected the health of residents in adjacent Corrales. No conclusive evidence has found higher-than-normal instances of diseases like pulmonary fibrosis or ALS, although the sample size is small.

Researchers at the University of New Mexico are studying cancer rates in the village related to the plant.

Intel plans Ohio version of CEWG

CEWG’s website holds a detailed record of meetings and issues going back to 2004, including supporting documents and even the emotions of speakers along with what they say. Intel pays $30,000 for a facilitator and recorder to lead and chronicle CEWG meetings, company spokesperson Linda Qian said.

She also told NBC4 that Intel will be starting a similar body to CEWG in Ohio later this year.

“The Community Advisory Panel will provide a space for local leaders and Intel to discuss and provide feedback on issues that are important to the community,” Qian wrote in an email.

The company’s Ohio website currently has a form where local residents can share their concerns.

Bartlit and Seth Woolley, a local environmental leader in Oregon, told NBC4 Intel has been honest in their dialogue with environmentalists, but they both suggested Ohioans start advocating as construction begins later this year on the Licking County campus slated to open in 2025.

“We like to think that we’re somewhat of a model,” CEWG’s Bartlit said, of how a group can successfully hear “capable voices on all sides,” provide technical expertise that’s digestible for the public, and ultimately improve the environment.

“It’s hard to do, but it’s possible,” he said. “I’m sure you have the right people somewhere there that could put together something good.”

Woolley, the founder of Portland Clean Air, a non-profit that studies emissions in and around Intel’s campuses near there, sees company-community relations a bit differently.

An Ohio version of CEWG should be effective, he said, “as long as the group is composed of citizens and not appointed by people from Intel or controlled by politicians.”

“If you have a group that’s derived from the citizens,” Woolley said, “that’s definitely the way to go about organizing and advocating to hold them accountable.”

But Bartlit said he doesn’t see talking to Intel and working jointly on issues as a “black mark.” And if Ohioans want a guide for how to engage with Intel and make environmental progress, he said, look at the “very long, very detailed” history of CEWG.

“They didn’t do everything we ever suggested,” he said, “but they did a lot.”