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PORTLAND, Ore. (Portland Tribune) — The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality says staff errors at Intel’s D1X facility in Hillsboro led to unhealthy air pollution for more than two months.

The unsafe emissions occurred after a regulatory device was left in standby mode and not monitored properly for two months, according to a January pre-enforcement notice by the DEQ obtained by Pamplin Media Group.

The report accuses Intel Corp. of violating the conditions of a mandatory Clean Air Act permit that requires the company to properly monitor and maintain safe air pollution levels for systems at their facilities, or “fabs.”

Highly technical

“In fabs, they have a number of units called tools and they do a million things to wafers (the primary component in a computer chip),” Patty Jacobs, the DEQ environmental engineer who wrote the agency’s notice to Intel, told Pamplin Media Group.

Wafers are thin slices of silicon that all the circuits, photovoltaics and microelectronics get etched or treated onto throughout the fabrication process. Each tool — think of a device more the size of a phone booth, not a hammer or screwdriver — has a regulatory system to comb out the harsh chemicals used during this process.

“They have caustic injections … that remove the acid gases of certain chemicals that they use to etch onto the wafer,” Jacobs said. “These chemicals are nasty, and so these acid gas scrubbers clean those.”

DEQ says a caustic injector on one acid gas scrubber device was not supplying a proper chemical mixture that keeps pollution emissions at safe pH levels. These pollutants include hydrogen fluoride and hydrogen chloride, which are harmful to humans.

The notice says Intel failed to properly monitor this scrubbing system for nine weeks following routine maintenance.

“Specifically, during the period of July 7 through Sept. 9, (2022), acid gas scrubber 4 in D1X fab, Mod 2, was left in a ‘hold’ status on the pH probe after preventative maintenance took place,” DEQ’s pre-enforcement letter states. “This resulted in ‘minimized treatment’ of the caustic (sodium hydroxide) being injected into this scrubber to keep it at the acceptable 7 pH.”

DEQ said Intel’s data showed the scrubber was operating well below the appropriate level, even as low as 2.72 pH, for at least 63 days.

Lower pH values means a solution is more acidic.

DEQ’s review of Intel’s data, which was initially submitted on Sept. 23, 2022, concluded that the scrubber not having the proper controls in place resulted in “significantly” increased pollution.

“The health effects from exposure to these chemicals depends on the amount and length of exposure,” DEQ’s report states. “However, short-term exposure to high enough air concentrations of these chemicals can cause severe respiratory damage in humans, including severe irritation and lung edema.”

“Severe eye irritation and skin burns may occur following eye or skin exposure in humans,” the DEQ added.

Health impacts

The notice does not state whether health impacts were reported among Intel employees or members of the public as a result, and DEQ spokesperson Harry Esteve said the agency is still looking into the matter to determine the scope of the issue and what enforcement actions it will take.

As for the health impacts, Jacobs with DEQ couldn’t speculate. She did say the DEQ was working with the Oregon Health Authority to review their findings and investigate whether Intel workers were impacted.

“This is just one scrubber of many,” Jacobs said, pointing to Intel’s permit, which details dozens of such devices at the company’s Ronler Acres campus. “The first people it would affect are the workers right there.”

The notice states that Intel has since returned the scrubber’s regulatory system to the correct levels.

DEQ does state clearly, however, that Intel “failed to take expeditious action” to report the issue or take corrective action.

The conditions of Intel’s air quality permit states that the company must continuously monitor this data and promptly report any deviations from acceptable pH levels within 15 days.

In total, DEQ says it found Class II violations of three conditions of the company’s permit.

Intel did not dispute the facts of DEQ’s notice when Pamplin Media Group reached out for comment, though it said the corporation is cooperating with the agency’s review.

“Intel has taken a number of steps to address this event, preventing future similar events and is cooperating fully with Oregon (DEQ) to rectify the matter,” Intel said in a statement. “We are prepared to implement the corrective actions determined through the enforcement process.”

Jacobs called this a “clear violation” and said there would be a penalty applied, but it’s up to the DEQ Office of Compliance and Enforcement to determine what it will be.

DEQ can apply fines for each day of non-compliance.