By Mike Rogoway & Katherine Driessen | The Oregonian
Intel has agreed to pay $143,000 for its failure to disclose fluoride emissions at its Washington County computer-chip factories.
The company’s deal with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality outlines additional steps Intel must take to correct its lapse, but opens to door for the company to win air quality permits for a new, multibillion-dollar factory called D1X.
“We’re prepared to pay the fine and implement the corrective actions outlined” in the agreement, Intel Oregon spokeswoman Chelsea Hossaini said Thursday afternoon.
Intel still has to reach a separate agreement with Neighbors for Clean Air, an environmental watchdog that had threatened to sue the company over the fluoride issue. And it’s pursuing a “Good Neighbor Agreement” with that organization and nearby residents that would implement additional air-quality monitoring around Intel’s Ronler Acres manufacturing and research campus in Hillsboro.
“Those discussions are going well and we’re cautiously optimistic,” Hossaini said.
The DEQ says it’s among the highest air-quality penalties ever issued in Oregon. The issue has been a major public embarrassment to Intel in Oregon, but the fine will have negligible impact for a company that reported profits of $9.6 billion last year.
Intel acknowledged last year that it had failed to report fluoride emissions at its Oregon factories, disclosure that is required under the state’s environmental laws. State regulators and the company said fluoride emissions were within safe levels, but the lapse threw Intel’s permitting status into confusion.
After at least seven months of talks, Thursday’s agreement outlines several steps – in addition to the penalty – that Intel will have to take. These include:
• Intel must submit a new permit application by the end of the year;
• It must disclose fluoride emissions on a public website;
• And it must test and measure emissions to support its permit application.
The DEQ says it would take up to 18 months to review Intel’s permit, plus an additional period for public review and comment.
DEQ permit writer George Davis said Intel will be paying a “relatively high fine,” particularly for an air-quality violation. In the fall, the agency said Intel’s omission was likely not a violation.
But Davis said DEQ reviewed the fluoride issue and realized there were three violations: the company did not disclose its fluoride emissions; it did not obtain a permit for those emissions; and Intel did not obtain the correct approval to begin construction on D1X.
“We concluded I was wrong about saying there was no violation,” Davis said.
The third violation, which means Intel must get a retroactive construction permit for D1X, raises two important questions.
- Will Intel need to halt construction? Davis said DEQ will not enforce that, though the violation in effect acknowledges that the company is operating without a needed permit.
- Will Intel need to take part in the environmentally stringent prevention of significant deterioration program? This is a complicated question. Intel got the okay to start construction at D1X just before a program called “prevention of significant deterioration” took effect. The company’s greenhouse gas emissions are high enough that, had Intel applied once the program was in place, it would have needed to do the vetting and emissions testing PSD requires. It’s uncertain whether Intel will now need to participate in PSD because a Supreme Court case is currently challenging the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases.
Davis also said the Intel errors have prompted the agency to review the emissions of all semiconductors in the state to make sure there are no other similar violations. Airborne fluoride is, for the most part, unique to the semiconductor industry.
All told, it could take two years for Intel to get the needed permits, Davis said.
Neighbors had mixed reactions to the deal, with some saying they were glad to see Intel agree to a fine and more monitoring, but lamenting that the agreement doesn’t establish stricter limits or oversight.
Anne Ferguson, who can see Intel’s Ronler Acres factories from her home at Orenco Station, said she’s excited there’s an agreement but that she believes the overall level of air quality is too low.
“I don’t think it’s a big enough fine, but I don’t want to get vindictive,” Ferguson said. “I want to focus on the doughnut, and not the hole.”
John Williams, who lives a little more than two miles east of Ronler Acres, said the agreement fails to spell out how DEQ settled on the size of Intel’s penalty, and doesn’t make clear how greenhouse gasses and other pollutants will be monitored.
Intel provides a huge economic boost for Oregon, Williams said, but the state needs to do a better job enforcing its environmental rules and the company needs to be more vigilant about its impact on the community.
“I think Intel could do more,” he said. “I think they may be coming to the realization that they’re not a power unto themselves.”
Note: This article has been updated with additional comment from DEQ and Intel’s neighbors.
- Mike Rogoway and Katherine Driessen