Intel says it plans to address neighborhood concerns about atmospheric pollution at its Hillsboro factories, responding to residents’ frustrations that the company failed to report fluoride emissions to regulators.
“Quite honestly, it’s embarrassing to us because this isn’t the way we do business,” said Todd Brady, Intel’s global environmental director. “We are doing a tremendous amount of work internally to find out how it happened and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Brady also said Intel is committed to working with its neighbors, and is arranging small meetings with several organizations and with residents to hash over concerns. While Brady wouldn’t discuss options to address those concerns until public comment on a pending environmental permit closes Monday, he said the company is committed to being responsive.
“We realize we lost some trust in the community,” he said, “and we want to win that trust back.”
The outreach represents a “first step” by Intel, according to former Washington County chairwoman Linda Peters, now chairwoman of the Washington County Citizen Action Network. She said Intel called her Wednesday, and has also contacted Neighbors for Clean Air, Save Helvetia and a pair of Washington County neighborhood associations.
“What we’re interested in is getting negotiation of an agreement that can be worked into the permit itself,” Peters said.
The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality is preparing a new air quality permit that would cover Intel’s existing manufacturing in Aloha and at its Ronler Acres campus near Hillsboro Stadium, and would also cover two new factories at Ronler Acres known collectively as D1X. In the process of reviewing Intel’s application, the DEQ reported that Intel had been emitting high volumes of fluoride for years without a permit.
Both the state and Intel maintain that the fluoride emissions did not pose a health hazard, and both accept blame for a failure to recognize that Intel didn’t have a necessary permit. Intel said it spotted the omission last year, while preparing its new air quality permit application, after discovering that its volume of fluoride emissions “triggered reporting requirements.”
Intel employs more than 17,000 people in Oregon, more than any other business in the state. Even though several residential neighborhoods sit in the shadow of Ronler Acres’ towering factories, which use an array of toxic chemicals used in semiconductor manufacturing, residents rarely voiced concern about Intel’s Oregon activities.
In contrast, Intel manufacturing in New Mexico has been a source of controversy for more than 20 years. Residents near Albuquerque say they believe Intel’s factory there has caused lung disease and polluted the air. The evidence is ambiguous, despite years of study. Intel emphatically denies harming anyone, but has acknowledged that it didn’t do enough to engage in conversations with its neighbors in New Mexico and allowed mistrust to fester.
In New Mexico, Intel convened a regular council of neighbors to discuss operations and worked with the Environmental Protection Agency to develop new permitting and testing requirements. It also agreed to raise its emission stacks to 40 meters (130 feet) to address residents’ concerns that pollutants were being released too close to ground level.
Though state and federal environmental rules give manufacturers considerable latitude in how they track and report factory emissions, Intel could voluntarily adopt more rigorous monitoring that would provide a more complete picture of its effect on air quality. For example, the DEQ’s draft permit gives Intel the option of monitoring air quality at the emission stack itself – but not the requirement to do so – to closely track what actually comes out of Intel’s factories.
Intel’s Oregon air quality permit has already triggered about 30 comments ahead of the Monday deadline for public input (a dozen others testified at a public hearing, but faulty equipment failed to record their comments.) Public sentiment has little bearing on whether Intel will ultimately receive its emissions permit – those decisions are largely mechanical, based on whether Intel complies with state and federal rules – but they could have a bearing on requirements built into the permit.
“We can make changes that require testing if we see that as something that’s necessary and desired to maintain compliance,” said David Monro, air quality manager with the DEQ.
Another factor in Intel’s calculus: The company receives substantial property tax exemptions on its manufacturing equipment under a deal with Hillsboro and Washington County. The current Strategic Investment Program agreement, which took effect in 2010, exempts up to $25 billion in Intel equipment from property taxes.
Those tax breaks save Intel more than $50 million annually, and with two new factories under construction the company could approach its $25 billion threshold within a few years. Intel will almost certainly seek a renewal of those exemptions in the near future, and community attitudes toward its environmental record could impact negotiations.
Peters, the former county commissioner, said it wants any environmental permit to require frequent monitoring of Intel’s emissions, cooperation in monitoring air quality downwind of Intel’s factories, and a commitment that Intel will use technology to reduce its emissions.
“All three of those are things we as a company feel are important,” Brady said. “We believe in transparency.”
Intel won’t commit to any specific steps before it’s heard from residents, but Brady said the company intends to be responsive.
“We want it to be a collaborative effort,” he said, “between us and the community.”
— The Oregonian’s Katherine Driessen contributed to this report.