COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — Intel’s $20 billion computer chip manufacturing campus outside New Albany will bring thousands of new jobs when two of eight possible plants (called “fabs”) are up and running by 2025. But questions of the factories’ environmental impact – specifically its air pollution – are yet to be answered.
The company currently has U.S. chip plants in Arizona, Oregon, and New Mexico. Environmentalists in the latter two states got together to clear the air after people living near the Intel facilities expressed concerns.
Since 2004, a working group of environmentalists has met every other month to discuss complaints about Intel’s one-fab plant in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, a suburb of Albuquerque.
“I want the (Community Environmental Working Group) to do good work, get good results and have people notice it so that they can do similar things,” said John Bartlit, the group’s acting chair.
CEWG currently includes Bartlit, a New Mexico environmentalist who spent his career in chemical engineering; local environmental activist Dennis O’Mara; and Sarah Chavez, an Intel environmental engineer.
O’Mara declined and Chavez did not respond to NBC4 Investigates’ interview requests for this story.
The group’s mission is to improve the Rio Rancho plant’s environmental impact and foster a dialogue between Intel and local people. Anyone can attend meetings, and the group invites expert speakers, hosts panels, and commissions research.
By focusing on objective data instead of heated demands from concerned residents, Bartlit said, “We’ve reduced emissions over the years significantly by some important ways.”
Work done by the CEWG, he said, led to Intel increasing the height of the stacks at its plant, allowing emissions to disperse instead of settling in one area. At CEWG’s suggestion, Intel also improved the maintenance of its air pollution abatement equipment.
Intel’s latest permit with the New Mexico Environment Department allows about 100 tons per year of multiple toxic compounds like carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide.
NMED data from 2020, however, shows Intel’s emissions were mere fractions of what they’re allowed. The longstanding issue for people living near the plant, then, is not that Intel is over-polluting, but if its emissions are harming them.
CEWG is currently keeping an eye on ongoing health studies at the University of New Mexico, which so far have not found any evidence of specific health risks near the Intel plant.
“That’s how we spend our time, is gathering evidence and making a case,” Bartlit said.
Still, environmentalists say more can and should be done to hold Intel accountable.
“Hundreds of thousands of tons of greenhouse gases per year come from these facilities, mostly from boilers,” said Seth Woolley, founder of Portland Clean Air, a non-profit that studies emissions in and around the Oregon city.
That includes emissions from Intel plants in nearby Hillsboro.
Woolley said PCA’s research also found that Intel emits far less than the limits set in its permits, but the public didn’t know that until environmentalists pushed for more government oversight of emitters from various industries.
“The governor stepped in and said, ‘We want all the emitters to do a mass balance analysis and tell us what they’re actually doing. And then we’re going to do a risk analysis and figure out who the highest risks are,'” Woolley said. “For Washington County, Intel was right at the top of that list.”
Woolley said the next step is to seek data from Intel.
“(W)e have been focusing on getting data out of them and asking Intel to actually measure what they’re polluting, so we can get an idea of what the actual hazards are,” he said.
One company oversight came in 2013 when it was discovered Intel had been emitting fluoride into Hillsboro air from 1978 to 2010 without regulator knowledge, an issue for which the company and the state environmental agency were both blamed.
That mistake led to Intel paying a $143,000 fine to the Oregon government.
Bartlit and Woolley said they feel Intel has been honest in its dialogue with environmentalists, but both still suggest Ohioans also form a group when Intel comes to town, so they can start a dialogue of their own.
“I’m a software engineer, myself, and I use the Intel chips, like, all day long, and I think it’s great for humanity, (it’s a) national security interest and brings jobs,” Woolley said. “There’s so many positives, we really just need to make sure that the social justice issues around it (and) the natural issues around maintaining the environment are preserved. And that can be a win-win for everybody.”
NBC4 Investigates asked Intel for an interview on this topic but received a statement from a spokesperson:
“Intel is committed to being an asset to our communities worldwide and operate in a way that minimizes our impact on the environment. We seek to be integrated into the communities in which we operate, and to minimize the impact of intel’s operations on our neighbors and community.”Intel spokesperson to NBC4 Investigates
Construction on the New Albany plant is scheduled to start later this year. The new plant is expected to create 3,000 high-paying jobs, 7,000 construction jobs, and potentially 10,000 long-term jobs.