GlobalFoundries Fab 8, in the two years since it started producing semiconductor chips, has become a major user of industrial chemicals.
That means truckloads of hazardous materials like sulfuric acid and sodium hydroxide used in chip-making arrive regularly at Fab 8’s complex in the Luther Forest Technology Campus, and some also is trucked away afterward for recycling.
The new chemical-hauling truck traffic on local roads — which is only going to increase as the plant expands production — is enough to make some neighbors nervous, though the company says the materials are being handled safely.
“I’m still uncomfortable,” said Round Lake Mayor Dixie Lee Sacks, who has long feared the consequences of a tanker-truck accident near Northway Exit 11, on a hill overlooking the tiny village.
Exit 11 is the main truck route to the plant and includes a roundabout at the entrance to the Round Lake Bypass, where Sacks fears a truck could tip over just yards from the village fire station.
The concerns aren’t groundless, though hundreds of thousands of hazardous loads travel the nation’s highways safely every day. Across the nation, there are thousands of incidents every year, according to federal records.
The Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has reviewed 12,500 to 13,500 incidents annually over the last decade, though very few result in injury or death. There were 11 deaths nationwide in 2013 and 136 injuries, according to a DOT database. The only Capital Region incident last year in the database was the driver of a gasoline truck seriously injured when it flipped over and burned in Hoosick in February.
There was an incident involving a GlobalFoundries transportation contractor in October, but it wasn’t serious enough to make the federal database. A driver hauling plastic containers of used sulfuric acid, apparently lost in Schenectady, jackknifed his truck while entering Route 7 from State Street. No material leaked, though the city fire department responded.
No room for error
GlobalFoundries says it holds its contractors to a high standard, and hazardous materials can be trucked safely if proper procedures are followed.
“The [DOT] regulations are actually very, very good,” Jim Fedorchak, Fab 8’s senior environmental health and safety manager, said during a recent interview at the plant.
Fedorchak is in charge of the plant’s compliance with a web of regulation from government agencies, including the federal Department of Transportation and Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Environmental Conservation. He praised the effectiveness of the regulations in keeping thing safe.
“No waste goes out unless it’s been processed to conform to our permit requirements,” he said.
DOT regulations specify the types of containers needed for certain chemicals, that a warning label visible on the truck identify the contents to emergency responders, that the driver have proper paperwork for the load and that the hauler have an emergency response plan, among other requirements.
In GlobalFoundries’ 300,000-square-foot manufacturing clean room, more than one million gallons of acids are used daily in the complex process of etching microscopic electrical circuits onto silicon chips, then flushed clean with huge volumes of purified water. The technique is standard in the semiconductor industry, but GlobalFoundries is the Capital Region’s first commercial chipmaker — operating what currently may be the most advanced chip production facilities in the world.
The important role of hazardous materials in manufacturing operations was known when Fab 8 was being planned. The three local volunteer fire companies began preparing for the challenges the plant would present years ago, increasing their training in how to deal with hazardous materials.
Now that the plant is up and running, safety meetings occur regularly between GlobalFoundries and the Malta Ridge, Round Lake and Stillwater fire companies. Fab 8 is in Malta Ridge’s fire protection district, but the truck routes run mostly through Round Lake’s district.
“Everything has pretty much gone as planned,” said Malta Ridge Fire Chief Peter Shaw. “We have regular safety meetings with them. We’ve had a couple of on-site drills, and they’ve worked out quite well.”
The same sorts of heavy-duty chemicals are moved up and down the Northway and other highways all the time, with little fanfare, another fire official noted.
“It’s just that it’s now going to GlobalFoundries and in large volumes,” said Round Lake Fire Chief Frank Mazza. “We know they’re there, but so far there haven’t been any incidents.”
If there were an incident, Mazza noted local volunteer firefighters would simply secure the scene, then stand by for a trained Saratoga County hazardous materials response team to come from Saratoga Springs.
“There’s not a lot we can do,” he acknowledged.
Waste not ...
The main chemical being recycled by GlobalFoundries is sulfuric acid, though other chemicals also may be recycled as the plant’s production increases and bigger volumes of those materials are used, Fedorchak said.
He said smaller amounts of chemical waste are neutralized and flushed out with wastewater into the Saratoga County sewer system, to be treated at the county sewage treatment plant in Mechanicville.
Fedorchak came to GlobalFoundries four years ago, new to the semiconductor industry. Before that, he spent more than 15 years working on environmental compliance in some notoriously dirty and complex industries — mines, chemical plants and oil refineries.
“A lot of [industrial compliance] is the same. This is by far the cleanest industry I have worked in,” he said.
Indeed, after two years of operation and amid continued construction all around it, Fab 8’s utility yard remains nearly spotless, a testament to a company philosophy that even dripping motor oil or hydraulic fluid should never touch the ground.
The plant’s chemical and gas storage yard is currently being expanded because of construction of a new technology development center, and Fab 8 has yet to achieve full-volume chip production, despite having 2,200 employees.
“We’re ramping up to volume production,” GlobalFoundries spokesman Travis Bullard said.
Some analysts believe the technology-sharing deal with Samsung announced two weeks ago could prove the catalyst for construction of a second — and even larger — chip fabrication plant. A Fab 8.2 already has local government approvals and would use the same chemicals and industrial gases.
Today, about 150 people work in Fab 8’s central utility building — a maze of tanks, valves and piping that handles the unglamorous side of high-tech: preparing and disposing of process water, chemicals and industrial waste. It’s an area of the plant where recycling is a major goal.
“The process is, we try not to landfill anything,” Fedorchak said.
Making the grade
While sulfuric acid is the main hazardous material being recycled, copper is also being filtered out of the used industrial water before it is sent to the sewage treatment plant.
The used sulfuric acid — about 5,000 to 10,000 gallons per week — is shipped by truck to chemical facilities in North Carolina or New Jersey. Despite the transportation cost, Fedorchak said recycling saves money.
“It’s a cost-saving to us, about $250,000 per quarter,” he said.
He said the chemical-receiving companies have proven safety records and their operations have been audited by GlobalFoundries to insure they follow proper chemical-handling procedures.
“There’s a lot of due diligence,” Fedorchak said. “Ultimately, we’re responsible for the material.”
Eventually, Fedorchak said Fab 8 will also start recycling isopropyl alcohol and perhaps other waste chemicals.
Overall, GlobalFoundries officials are proud of the company’s environmental and safety record and say their natural gas boiler emissions already comply with new federal regulations on greenhouse gases.
“We’re ahead of the curve on that,” Fedorchak said.
Outside auditors from the International Standardization Organization reviewed the plant operations in October and found no issues. The ISO certified the plant for its occupational health and safety management, environmental management and quality control management systems.
“To have zero non-conformance on a site this big is huge for us,” Fedorchak said. “We want to be able to take a hard look at ourselves, to be sure we are keeping every one of our employees and the public safe.”