Intel apparently has been persuaded to again test the air in Corrales neighborhoods for traces of its industrial chemical emissions. Discussions about capturing “grab samples” near the home of a Corrales member of Intel’s Community Environmental Working Group (CEWG), Dennis O’Mara, have been ongoing for more than a year; the proposed air sampling is unrelated to the microchip manufacturer’s announcement earlier this month that it will expand production in the factories above Corrales.
O’Mara, a retired specialist for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), continues to report that he smells, and is affected by, chemicals he thinks originate at the Intel facilities more than a half-mile away. He began smelling those suspicious odors more than seven years ago, perhaps because Intel finally raised its emissions stacks to disperse waste chemicals more widely.
Before the stacks were raised to an appropriate height in 2011, residents’ complaints were almost entirely concentrated in down-slope homes immediately below Intel, especially the Windover and Pueblo los Cerros areas. Those complaints have dropped off sharply in recent years.
At the April 2021 CEWG meeting, held online, members discussed developing an air testing protocol, focusing on a proposal by CEWG member Mike Williams, an air pollution specialist with New Mexico Citizens for Clean Air and Water. Minutes from the September 2020 CEWG meeting said O’Mara, who lives along Tierra Encantada, reported “he had experienced several more odor incidents over the last month. The most recent was this past Sunday night. His swamp cooler was off, but the windows were cracked open.
“The odor hit about 1:30 a.m. and proceeded to worsen. Around 2:30 a.m. he experienced the burning sensation in his nose, throat and lungs. He said it smelled like someone had ‘scorched the bottom of their pound cake.’ a sweet smell that was hard to describe and was abnormal. He said he did not venture outside to further investigate.”
At the same meeting last summer, CEWG chairman John Bartlit, a founder of New Mexico Citizens for Clean Air and Water, told of published list of 650 industrial chemicals and associated odors compiled by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR).
Last summer O’Mara said he would consider surveying other residents in his neighborhood to learn whether they, too, were bothered by night time fumes. At the April CEWG meeting, he suggested placing the air sample cannisters in three different locations at the same time to improve chances a reported odor would be captured.
Intel’s representative on the working group, Alex Lowry, tentatively agreed that his firm would pay the estimated $300 to place each cannister. That cost was thought to include analysis of the grabbed air sample. Minutes from that meeting noted that Lowry “suggested wherever the first cannister was open to collect the sample, that’s what they would send in for analysis, unless they wanted to organize opening all three at the same time.”
The minutes continued, “John Bartlit said he would start with three cannisters for Dennis O’Mara to distribute to neighbors. He said he would think about how to deal with three samples, and how to proceed after they were collected. “Dennis O’Mara said another option was to locate the cannisters in three different locations, or in one place, to grab three samples during an episode, one taken indoors and two samples taken outdoors.
“John Bartlit said that method would improve data quality but reduce the likelihood of getting data. It was a trade-off.” O’Mara cautioned there is no clear rationale for deciding when and where to test, even after the suspect odor is detected. “They did not have a way of predicting when it was appropriate to use the grab sampling. The middle of summer was when he and some of his neighbors had experienced the most toxic fumes,” according to the meeting minutes.
O’Mara began reporting breathing fumes he associated with Intel more than eight years ago. He lives 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. (See Corrales Comment series on Radian Corporation’s risk assessment beginning with Vol.XVI, No. 23, January 24, 1998 and especially Part 4, Vol.XVII, No.3, March 21, 1998 “Air Pollution Study Seems to Suggest Intel’s Emissions Stacks Are Too Low”)
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, 2020 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.
The health effects of chemical emissions from Intel have received considerable attention during the past three decades, including a 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.”)
At that time, the cabinet secretary for the N.M. Environment Department was Ron Curry, who now is Corrales’ Village Administrator. Those findings led to creating the CEWG, which usually holds monthly meetings in the Corrales Senior Center. Now those are online. 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.”)
The two federal 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 investigating 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.”