SAN FRANCISCO -- The 1.3-billion-dollar expansion of a computer chip plant near Phoenix, Arizona, heralds a new era in environmental regulation, according to company and U.S. government officials.
But environmentalists warn that Washington's efforts to allow Intel flexibility in complying with federal regulations could provide the world's largest computer chip maker with expanded opportunities to pollute.
Expansion of the Intel plant in Chandler, Arizona, is the biggest and most advanced of eight pilot schemes -- collectively known as Project XL -- approved by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to demonstrate a new approach to environmental regulation.
''This programme will give a limited number of responsible companies the opportunity to demonstrate excellence and leadership. They will be given the flexibility to develop alternative strategies that will replace current regulatory requirements,'' said President Bill Clinton at the launch of the planning process in March 1995.
Intel plans to use this special permission to develop ''flexible new environmental strategies'' in its efforts to double the capacity of its existing 388-hectare plant, where the company manufactures advanced microprocessors such as the Pentium 200 megahertz chip.
For example, the company received permission to simplify the reporting and safety procedures for the handling of hazardous materials, Intel spokesperson David Olney said. Instead of providing five different sets of reports on materials used at the plant, the company will provide a single comprehensive electronic database to one government agency for all to access.
The company also plans to issue a single set of production and pollution data four times a year that can easily be understood by the public.
''We don't want any relief from environmental regulations. No, we can meet 'em and beat 'em,'' Olney told IPS. ''In the past, companies tried to control emissions by fixing devices at the end of the pipe. But we want to look at processes at the front end of the project.''
As part of the new process, the company has conducted more than 90 meetings with local residents to gain their confidence and gauge their opinion. As a result, Intel's plans have been enthusiastically accepted by many local residents, although some remain wary.
But Olney said he is a little disappointed that national environmental organisations have not come to talk to the company or endorsed its work.
One possible reason is the fact that a group of environmentalists say that the process is not as wonderful as Intel and the EPA make it out to be.
Last month, Tupac Enrique of the Tonatierra Community Development Institute in Phoenix and Richard Moore of the Southwest Network of Environmental and Economic Justice in New Mexico sent a letter expressing their concerns to EPA administrator Carol Browner.
A similar letter was sent to Browner by the Campaign for Responsible Technology, a coalition of more than 50 environmental groups and activists based here in California.
Both letters point out that the ''flexibility'' of the project would allow the company to significantly expand its manufacturing facilities in the future without having to apply for additional environmental reviews.
In theory, this means the company could discharge 40 times the amount of hydrochloric acid and as much 400 times the levels of phosphine and diborane then it is currently permitted to release. It also would allow Intel to release new, untested chemicals into the atmosphere.
''We are alarmed that (the Intel project) could set a terrible precedent that would present a serious threat to environmental justice,'' Tupac and Moore told Browner.
In addition, they criticised Intel for intending not to allow independent monitoring of emissions and its compliance with regulations because these matters are ''confidential business information.'' Instead, they noted, the company will provide computer simulations of the pollution control.
Finally, the letters of complaint pointed out that it is lithe expanded facility will probably use large quantities of water, an extremely scarce commodity in the desert climate of Arizona.
Not surprisingly, Intel disagrees with its critics.
''We were issued a permit that only allowed us to emit 25 pounds (11.4 kilogrammes) of phosphine a year, but our calculations show that the environmental standards actually allow us to emit up to four tons a year, argued Olney, noting, We've agreed to report any emissions over 1,000 pounds a year.''
On the question of monitoring, Olney said the computer simulations are only intended to be used for materials that are emitted in very small quantities. He added that the company is looking for ways of reporting releases other than the total volume produced to avoid giving away trade secrets.
Olney did acknowledge that Intel will not need to obtain new permits in the future. However, he disagreed thBt the plant expansion will create water shortages because the company already is working with the city to recycle all its waste water.
Here in California, activists, led by the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, point out that the computer chip industry has damaged the environment and worker health through the release of chemicals used in the manufacturing process into the air, soil and water.
For example, studies conducted by the Semiconductor Industry Association of San Jose show that women in semiconductor jobs are 1.45 times as likely to have spontaneous abortions as are women working in non-manufacturing jobs.
Whether these problems will recur in Arizona will not be known for several years.
But Barbara Knox, a local farmer who lives near the new facility and sits on the environmental committee of the citizen advisory panel says she trusts that Intel will do the right thing.
''All aspects of our lives have risks but I am not worried about this plant,'' she told IPS. ''I'm very impressed with the company plans and I think they will not replicate the mistakes that have been made in California.''
- 192 Technology & Telecommunications