April 19, 2006

Big Blue is No. 1 polluter

Emissions are within limits; more treatment on the way

By Dan Shapley
Poughkeepsie Journal

Spencer Ainsley/Journal file photo
This aerial photograph looking south
over Hudson Valley Research Park,
taken from about 1,500 feet above the ground,
shows IBM's new 300-millimeter chip plant,
center right, in East Fishkill.

WICCOPEE IBM Corp.'s discharges to the Gildersleeve Brook in East Fishkill increased four-fold after it started producing a new generation of microchips in 2002, the latest federal data show.

In 2004, IBM was, pound for pound, the nation's top polluter for its industry type, and New York's largest water polluter.

The $5 billion plant is IBM's largest capacity plant. It manufactures high-powered microchips using innovations such as 300-millimeter-wide silicon wafers and copper circuitry.

A second wave of investments $16 million in waste treatment will soon staunch much of that water pollution. IBM will reuse the ammonia and copper that make up the largest components of its waste stream, IBM spokesman Steve Cole said.

IBM reported emitting 2.56 million pounds of pollutants in 2004 from its wastewater treatment plant at the Hudson Valley Research Park. Discharges of nitrate compounds, copper compounds and lead rose sharply, while ammonia discharges decreased. Nitrates resulting from the treatment of ammonia made up 99.9 percent of the pollution.

The two-year-old data and rankings are from the Toxic Release Inventory, the annual accounting of pollution to the nation's air, water and land. It was released last week by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Lead and ammonia discharges were consistently within levels permitted by the Department of Environmental Conservation, spokeswoman Wendy Rosenbach said. IBM exceeded its three-pound-per-day copper discharge limit three times between 2002 and 2005, she said. The DEC didn't say whether IBM was penalized.

The flow of pollutants from the plant, including copper, were far below IBM's annual permitted limits, Cole said.

"We continue to operate well below our permit limits despite increases in our production," Cole said.

The largest component of the effluent reported in the Toxic Release Inventory is not regulated. The DEC doesn't impose limits on discharges of nitrates to "Class C" streams like the Gildersleeve Brook.

The DEC classifies streams based on its determination of their "best uses." On the Gildersleeve Brook, that means fishing, but not swimming or drinking. Discharges are permitted only if they maintain streams in a condition suitable for their designated uses, Rosenbach said.

In excess, nitrates can over-fertilize stream algae and plants, causing a ripple of effects in the ecosystem that can deplete oxygen and harm some fish species, including trout. Both lead and copper can accumulate in tissues and be toxic.

Tom Lynch, a biology professor at Marist College, said polluted water could flow from the stream to nearby wells, depending on whether groundwater flows into or out of the stream. He spoke generally because he isn't familiar with Gildersleeve Brook, which flows through a neighborhood before spilling into the Fishkill Creek.

"The primary concerns would be the drinking water," Lynch said. "The other concern would be this excess algae or plant growth that would change the whole physical, chemical and biological character of the system. Then there is the possible toxicity."

The nitrates in IBM's waste result from treating ammonia using a biological activated sludge process. Certain bacteria digest ammonia to make nitrates.

In 2004, the plant discharged 99 pounds of ammonia into the brook, marking its third consecutive decrease from a peak of 240 pounds in 2001.

IBM is nearing completion of a new $12 million ammonia distillation system that will remove ammonia so IBM can reuse it. Because ammonia won't be processed, the system will result in a "significant" reduction in nitrate discharges, Cole said. Just how big the reduction will be won't be known until late May when the system starts operating.

"It will be recycled and reused as a virgin chemical," Cole said.

Among all American facilities that reported discharging nitrate compounds to water in 2004, the IBM treatment plant's 2.56 million pounds ranked as the 13th largest, behind several steel and meat industry facilities and one federal munitions factory. It was the largest in New York.

The 336 pounds of lead discharged to water in 2004 ranked 15th nationwide, and first in New York.

Cole said 2004 was an anomaly, but couldn't explain what caused the spike in lead in time for this report. Preliminary data show 2005 discharges were comparable to the 2002 rate of 114 pounds, he said.

The 600 pounds of copper compounds it discharged to water ranked third in New York, and did not rank among the top 100 facilities in the country.

Like ammonia, copper discharges will be reduced in the future. IBM is designing a $4 million treatment plant for copper.

Using copper in the circuitry of microchips was an IBM innovation that allowed it to create smaller, more powerful chips. It was a key component in energy-efficient chips unveiled in 2004.

On the Web

Toxic Release Inventory: www.epa.gov/tri

Copyright 2006, Poughkeepsie Journal. Reprinted with Permission.
 Watershed Home   Media Menu