In the past decade, Hynix’s giant green and tan factory with its constant gentle hum has become part of the scenery at the Hamlins’ llama ranch off Bailey Hill Road in west Eugene.
“We’ve got a view of the city lights,” Fred Hamlin said earlier this week, gesturing toward downtown Eugene as he stood in the pasture behind his house. “And this is our second city,” he said, pointing to the Hynix plant about a mile to the north.
Fred and his wife, Susan, supported Hynix – then called Hyundai – when it announced plans in 1995 to build a computer-chip plant in west Eugene. The Hamlins still support the plant and the jobs it has brought to Lane County, Fred Hamlin said, but they oppose the company’s recent request to more than double its air emissions of hydrogen fluoride to 5 tons annually, up from 1.8 tons.
Hynix Semiconductor, which operates the Eugene factory and plants in South Korea and China, reported a profit of $451 million on sales of $2.61 billion in the first three months of 2007. The Hamlins want Hynix to invest some of that profit into the most advanced production methods and pollution control technology available to decrease its overall emissions, instead of increasing them.
“(We) agree that Hynix should be allowed to grow, but do not want to risk (our) health and the health of other Oregonians when safer alternatives are available,” the Hamlins wrote in their public comment to Lane Regional Air Protection Agency.
Exposure below state standard
The EPA classifies hydrogen fluoride as a hazardous air pollutant. In large doses, the colorless gas can irritate skin, eyes and the respiratory tract.
The maximum emissions that Hynix is proposing under the new cap shouldn’t harm the plant’s workers or neighbors, said Doug Erwin, the air agency permit writer.
“The levels we’re talking about here are not that great,” he said.
Using a screening model, Erwin found that a person one mile from the plant would be exposed to 4.1 micrograms per cubic meter of hydrogen fluoride per hour, well below Oregon’s exposure standard of 240 micrograms per cubic meter. Long-term exposure would fall well below statewide limits, he said.
Despite those assurances, 275 people, including the Hamlins, contacted the local air agency to oppose Hynix’s request to boost its hydrogen fluoride emissions.
The public comment period, which lasted four months, ended March 31.
Since then, the air agency has asked Hynix to do more study on vegetation’s exposure to the higher hydrogen fluoride releases. The agency will evaluate that information, write a final report and issue a decision soon, Erwin said.
The Churchill Area Neighbors, a city neighborhood association that represents about 5,000 households, didn’t oppose Hynix’s request when it wrote to the air agency. But it did raise concerns about the lack of scientific data on the effects of hydrogen fluoride on plants, animals and people.
Companies not deterred
The strong public response indicates that even after a decade of coexistence with their large industrial neighbor, many area residents are still interested in and concerned about the chemicals the company uses and the pollution it creates, observers said.
The attention paid to environmental issues in this community hasn’t seemed to deter companies from locating in Lane County, however, said Jack Roberts, executive director of the Lane Metro Partnership, a business recruitment agency.
“We find a lot of businesses are attracted here because they share that level of interest in environmental standards,” he said. “I think Hynix has a strong commitment in that direction as well.”
The company has earned international certifications, which require continuous improvement of its environmental practices. It also has launched sustainability initiatives to reduce water and power consumption and increase recycling, company spokesman Bobby Lee said.
Chemical emissions stay flat
Late last year, Hynix applied to the air agency to renew its air contaminant discharge permit, which was first issued in May 1996 and renewed in 2001.
Along with that application, Hynix proposed raising the cap on hydrogen fluoride emissions because it has increased production at the plant over the years, and its efforts to reduce perfluorocompounds, or PFCs, – potent greenhouse gasses that trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere – have the side effect of generating more hydrogen fluoride emissions, Lee said.
In 2001, Hynix joined a campaign by the EPA and semiconductor manufacturers worldwide to reduce PFCs by 10 percent from 1995 levels by 2010.
In the past four years, Hynix has more than doubled its chip production but kept PFC emissions essentially flat through alternative chemistries, improved processes and control equipment, Lee said.
Hynix uses gases containing fluorine to etch integrated circuitry onto silicon wafers. A byproduct of that process is hydrogen fluoride.
Air scrubbers remove 87 percent of the pollutant from the air before it’s released, according to tests conducted in 1999, said Erwin, the permit writer.
In general, he said, the highest concentrations of Hynix’s air emissions would be within a mile or two of the plant.
Scores of residents told air regulators that they’re worried about how higher emissions might affect their health and the environment, especially the extensive wetlands near Hynix’s campus.
“I don’t think that one corporation should be allowed to pollute and endanger the health and well-being of the entire surrounding area,” wrote Rick Ahrens, who said he spends a lot of time hiking, biking and working to restore wetlands in the west Eugene wetlands area. “Short-term profits often have hidden long-term costs. The bottom line is – what is in the best interest of our children and the ecosystem that sustains us?”
Effect on plants and animals
Hydrogen fluoride gas released into the air combines with water in clouds and fog to form hydrofluoric acid, which then falls to the ground, according to the EPA. In low concentrations, it can be absorbed by the leaves of plants, browning their tips.
High concentrations – far higher than what Hynix is proposing – can lead to growth abnormalities or decreased reproductivity in plants and animals, the local air agency wrote in its draft report. Livestock that drink water or eat foliage contaminated with high levels of fluoride may have dental lesions, bone overgrowth, lameness, loss of appetite, a decrease in milk production and reduced reproductivity, according to the air agency.
That’s a concern for the Hamlins, who have raised several national champions at their Walkin’ Llama Ranch.
“I’m not an alarmist,” Fred Hamlin said. “That’s not my thing, but in the back of your head, you’re always thinking about this stuff. Llamas can live for 25 years, what happens to them over time?”
Oregon doesn’t have standards for plants’ or animals’ exposure to hydrogen fluoride, nor do most states, Erwin said.
At Erwin’s request, Hynix hired a consultant to conduct additional modeling of plants’ exposure to hydrogen fluoride. Erwin said he’s analyzing those results and will compare them with standards in Washington state and Canada.
Hynix’s factory first began manufacturing computer chips in May 1998. It employs 1,215 workers and has an annual payroll of $62.7 million, Lee said.
Pollution vs. jobs
A number of letters to the air agency questioned whether Hynix’s jobs – though important to the local economy – are worth the potential health risks from increased emissions.
Eugene resident William Merris told the air agency that Hynix is making “an unconscionable request” that presumes the citizens of Lane County will accept air pollution in exchange for the jobs Hynix offers.
Many letter writers said they felt companies should be striving to decrease, rather than increase, pollution. “In this day and age, I would think that we would be requiring them to reduce emissions by 50 percent, not double them,” wrote Hanz Scholz, president and co-founder of Bike Friday, a bicycle manufacturer on West 11th Avenue.
“I strongly object to letting this happen, as I have a factory of 35 employees just east of the Hynix factory and we don’t want to be breathing their garbage,” he said.
Some residents pressed the air agency to require Hynix to show that it has evaluated all options, including substituting a different chemical for hydrogen fluoride, using hydrogen fluoride in a closed system, and using scrubbers or other systems to contain the emissions.
“Our community deserves to know that Hynix has no other alternative than to more than double its (hydrogen fluoride) emissions,” Eugene resident Mary O’Brien wrote.
Lee said the company isn’t aware of any technology that can remove 100 percent of the hydrogen fluoride, nor is it feasible to recover the hydrogen fluoride because it is so diluted in the air hitting the scrubbers.
Control technology is improving, however, and Hynix buys more equipment every year, Lee said. The company has installed more than 130 scrubbers, with price tags of $55,000 to $120,000 each, since 1998. Hynix has spent a total of nearly $10 million on control equipment, mostly to reduce hydrogen fluoride emissions, Lee said.
Erwin, the air agency permit writer, said the agency has consulted with about a half-dozen jurisdictions that regulate semiconductor plants, including some in Oregon, Washington, Virginia and California.
“My objective was to find out if there was a lot of difference between the way these plants operated and what their requirements were compared with Hynix,” Erwin said. “The bottom line without question is there wasn’t any significant greater stringency at these other jurisdictions.”
Hynix is using what the industry calls “best available control technology,” Erwin said.
“With due respect to what they have in place,” he said, “we want to see them do more to the extent practical. We want to ask, `Is it good enough to meet the concerns of this community?’ And that question is yet to be answered.”