Perhaps it has been changing wind patterns, changing weather or changing industrial chemicals, but breezes over the microchip factories on the escarpment may have caused breathing irritation downwind this summer. During the August 19 virtual meeting of Intel’s Community Environmental Working Group (CEWG), much discussion focused on complaints that Intel’s chemical emissions were suspected as the cause for early morning breathing problems.
Dennis O’Mara, a Corrales resident who consistently attends CEWG meetings and is retired from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said he had awakened several times in August when industrial odors were blown into his bedroom through swamp coolers. He began reporting breathing fumes he associated with Intel more than seven years ago. He lives on Tierra Encantada, far from the neighborhoods nearest the factories that experienced such intense exposures decades ago. Conditions for near-neighbors subsided markedly once Intel erected tall “smoke stacks” that dissipated emissions and sent them farther away.
O’Mara said he was bothered by such industrial odors more this summer than earlier. He described them as burning irritations for his nasal passages, throat and lungs. Odors persisted in his dome hours after he turned off the swamp coolers. Other CEWG members, including John Bartlitt and Mike Williams, members of New Mexicans for Clean Air and Water, suggested use of air monitoring or sampling equipment at the O’Mara home during certain times of year.
Years ago, air quality monitoring and sampling was conducted in and around the Pueblo los Cerros condos by Corrales Residents for Clean Air and Water which purchased a sophisticated Fourier transform infrared device. The equipment was later transferred to an environmental group monitoring emissions from Intel facilities in Oregon.
At the August CEWG meeting, Williams said a less sophisticated method was to “grab” air samples in cannisters which could be sent to a lab for analysis. That method, too, was deployed in Corrales decades ago by Southwest Organizing Project. O’Mara asked whether a swamp cooler could concentrate emissions in the air that might be drawn into a home. Williams replied the cooler would not concentrate fumes, but might change their form. If material came in as a gas, he explained, moisture in the cooler could change it to particles, such as a fine mist that might be inhaled.
O’Mara said he would consider surveying other residents in his neighborhood to learn whether they, too, were bothered by night time fumes. The health effects of chemical emissions from Intel have received considerable attention during the past three decades, including an detailed study funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The Corrales Air Toxics Study implemented by the N.M. Air Quality Bureau produced inconclusive results in 2004. (See Corrales Comment Vol. XXIII No.9 June 19, 2004 “Toxicologist Says Detected Fumes Pose Health Risk.”) That $600,000 study was abruptly halted in spring 2004 when then-Bureau Chief Mary Uhl reported that a consultant’s air pollution plume modeling results showed Intel’s pollution was traced to nearby residents’ homes at the time they reported illnesses. Such a finding was unacceptable politically. She was later removed as bureau chief.
In the wake of Uhl’s damning disclosure, cabinet level officials within Governor Bill Richardson’s administration huddled to find a way through the dilemma. (See Corrales Comment Vol.XXIII, No. 5, April 24, 2004 “Late Report Links Illnesses to Intel Emission Plume” and Vol.XXIII, No. 9, June 19, 2004 “Cabinet Secretaries Don‘t Believe Air Problem.”)
Those findings led to creating the CEWG, which usually holds monthly meetings in the Corrales Senior Center. Now those are on line. Starting about the same time was a study by the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) on exposure to toxic chemicals from Intel. The agency’s “community health consultation” began in mid-2004 when Rio Rancho realtor Marcy Brandenburg filed a petition with ATSDR to investigate ongoing health problems reported by residents and business people near the microchip factories.
By the 1990s, suspicions had arisen that certain pollutants that Intel acknowledged releasing, such as large quantities of silica powder, might be causing respiratory and other diseases. (See Corrales Comment series beginning Vol.XXVIII, No.23, January 23, 2010 “Dallas-Region EPA Stages Surprise Inspection at Intel.”) The EPA report on the inspection came out in October 2010. (See Corrales Comment series beginning Vol.XXIX, No.17, October 23, 2010 “EPA Inspection Slams Air Pollution Permit.”)
In an October 13, 2010 cover letter to Intel Environmental Manager Frank Gallegos, EPA-Dallas Air Enforcement Chief Steve Thompson stated that the inspection and subsequent investigation found “There are 15 Areas of Concern and one Area of Non-compliance noted in the combined reports” by the EPA Region 6 team and inspectors from the Boulder-based National Enforcement Investigations Center (NEIC).
The voluminous EPA report vindicated many of the criticisms that Corrales residents had stressed for the previous 16 years. It noted, for example, that the emissions factors upon which Intel calculates its releases of toxic chemicals may be wrong or unreliable, leading to chronic under-reporting of some dangerous chemicals such as hydrogen fluoride.
The NEIC report pointed out it reviewed two emission factor calculations for two of Intel’s federally designated Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAPs) during the December 2009 inspection and found both to be wrong. For one of the toxic chemicals, ethyl lactate, the NEIC investigators noted that “Intel has under-reported emissions released by the [inspected] process by 36 percent since second quarter 2008.”
For that, Intel was cited with non-compliance.
Over and over, the EPA and NEIC teams slammed Intel’s data which “may not be valid for use in calculating Hazardous Air Pollutant emissions.” One of those “areas of concern” cited by EPA involved the possible under-estimation of a particularly dangerous chemical, the acid gas hydrogen fluoride (HF). “Intel uses an average [acid gas] scrubber removal efficiency that was calculated from stack test results that do not relate to pH of the scrubber water liquid or water addition to the scrubber at the time of testing. Intel may be under-estimating HF emissions when the pH of the scrubber liquid is low.”
Scrubbers are chambers of high intensity water spray through which waste acidic gases pass before being released to the air. Elsewhere EPA alleged that “Intel continues to use the results of the unapproved and potentially inaccurate testing to calculate HAP emissions from scrubbers at the facility.”
The two agencies gave considerable attention to the inadequacy of the air pollution permit issued by the N.M. Air Quality Bureau. Reinforcing the criticism voiced for years by CRCAW members and homeowners near Intel, the NEIC team stated, “The N.M. Environment Department permit does not contain short-term (hourly, daily, monthly) emissions limits for volatile organic compounds and Hazardous Air Pollutants. Without short-term limits, Intel can have spikes in its emission profile that can lead to acute exposures of these chemicals.”