Intel Brings N.Mexico Pollution Concerns

Reuters:  http://biz.yahoo.com/rb/050103/column_lifting_1.html?printer=1

Intel Brings N.Mexico Pollution Concerns
Monday January 3, 2:12 pm ET
By Daniel Sorid

 

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A 15-year tax break that secured Intel Corp.'s ongoing investment in the state of New Mexico has rekindled a heated debate over the ability of a poor U.S. state to regulate the world's largest chip maker.

Critics charge that New Mexico, which in September granted Intel a landmark $2 billion tax concession, has jeopardized public health in order to keep its largest private industrial employer from leaving. They also question whether the state can stand up to a company so important to its economy.

"They've got to keep Intel happy," said Jim Shively, a retired 22-year veteran of New Mexico's environmental agency who oversaw, and opposed, Intel's most recent application for an emissions permit for its plants. Intel, he said, has "just got a stranglehold on the agency."

Intel's two New Mexico factories on a bluff outside of Albuquerque are some of the most advanced semiconductor plants in the world, producing Pentium chips that power most personal computers. Like all such plants, they also produce noxious chemicals that must be filtered out of exhaust fumes.

Some residents of Corrales, which sits on a valley below the factories, complain that emissions equipment failures send fumes wafting over their homes, causing headaches and rashes.

At the same time, officials call Intel an economic foundation of the state, whose per-capita income is the nation's fifth-lowest.

"If we don't act as a partner with Intel, and if we don't help to make them competitive and they decide to take these 5,300 jobs to another part of the world, the economy of New Mexico would be devastated," said Rick Homans, New Mexico's secretary of economic development.

New Mexico Environment Department Secretary Ron Curry acknowledged that regulating big industries was a challenge. But he said Intel is a minor emissions source and its violations have mostly been paperwork mistakes. The department has studied Intel's plants more than any others, he said.

"There could be an argument that they're almost over-regulated," he said.

FUMES AND CITATIONS

Since 2002, the state has cited Intel for at least 11 violations of wastewater and air emissions equipment rules, according to state and company records. In each case, the state accepted Intel's proposals to alter training and procedures, and levied no fines.

"The state environment department strikes no fear in Intel," said Robby Rodriguez, an organizer with the SouthWest Organizing Project, an Albuquerque-based activist group.

The terms of Intel's state-issued air permit leave regulators heavily reliant on Intel's own calculations, said Shively, the retired environment department manager. He said Intel repeatedly rejected his proposals for a stronger permit, and eventually got its way after appealing to higher-ups.

Intel spokesman Chuck Mulloy said the permit has passed rigorous reviews by the government and courts. He also said Corrales residents' complaints were investigated by a state task force for nearly two years, and no evidence supporting the claims was found.

But for many in Corrales those conclusions "didn't settle anything," said Gary Kanin, the town's mayor.

Even before the task force concluded its work in June, Intel approached county officials about a new tax break, said Daymon Ely, the outgoing Sandoval County Commission chairman who brokered the deal. Only during tax negotiations did Intel say it would install $7 million worth of backup emissions control equipment, he said, addressing years-old complaints.

Mulloy said that decision was not part of any quid-pro-quo with the state, and had been drawn up in late 2003.

THE TRADE-OFF

The $214-billion semiconductor industry has faced complaints for decades about air and groundwater pollution. California's Silicon Valley is dotted with toxic cleanup sites formerly owned by electronics companies.

At the same time, the economic importance of the industry to small towns like Rio Rancho, New Mexico and Chandler, Arizona -- where Intel has facilities -- keeps states playing off one another to attract investment.

In September, county officials, supported by the governor's office, signed the tax incentive package, a $16 billion industrial revenue bond that allows Intel to invest in Sandoval county and avoid certain taxes. The deal saves Intel about $2 billion in taxes, said Ely, the county commissioner.

In return, the county gets up to $95 million for badly needed public works projects, he said.

Shively, the retired manager, said the state remains afraid to go after the chip maker, a charge the department denies. "They were known as that big, bad ugly animal up on the hill and they didn't want to stir them up," he said.