Off Campus

Micron in Clay: Economic success or environmental concern? 

Micron: Economic success or environmental concern?

Community members gauge the benefits with the risks associated with the $100 billion chip facility planned for White Pine Commerce Park.

Kira Donegan
A Micron Technology sign posted in Clay’s White Pine Commerce Park, the site for the proposed $100 billion megafab project.

Cars speed along State Route 31 passing a stretch of barren, grassy land near Caughdenoy Road in Clay. The area is known as White Pine Commerce Park, the site for Micron Technology’s proposed $100 billion megafab project set to start construction next year.

The park contains wetlands but was expanded to roughly 1,200 acres in 2019 to add land for potential developers. Federally regulated, the wetlands’ removal would require substantial environmental compensation to avoid serious damage, according to the Federal Register. This is just one concern of many voiced by community members since Micron announced the project in October 2022.  

Despite concerns, Micron received $6.1 billion in chip grants last month from the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022, which aims to bring back semiconductor manufacturing to the United States.

Although Micron has made promises of an economic boost, citizens and environmental activists have raised concerns over the billion-dollar chip-making industry coming to Clay.  Multiple sources claim that Lake Ontario, located 35 miles away, will serve as the primary water source for the plant, however, that raises more issues about wastewater treatment, water transportation and energy usage.   

The high demand for jobs presents a compelling case for economic gain in Central New York, considering Syracuse’s staggering 30.1% poverty rate, surpassing the national average of 11.6%, as reported by CNY Central.

Both the media and President Biden have echoed this argument, notably during Biden’s visit to Syracuse on April 25, when Micron CEO Sanjay Mehrotra was also in attendance. Biden’s speech underscored the necessity of job creation, including “9,000 permanent Micron manufacturing jobs … many of them paying, catch this, $100,000 a year, and it doesn’t require a college degree.”

Community insight from town hall

Promises of economic gain echoed in the halls of Clay City Town Hall, a three-minute drive from the park of sprawling plots of trees and grass.

Clay town supervisor Damian M. Ulatowski said Micron must prioritize the chip fab facility’s site development efforts from an environmental standpoint and ensure the provision of additional water resources to the property, a nod to a previous pipeline ferrying water from Clay to Lake Ontario.

“It’s my understanding that they would build another pipe adjacent to or in proximity to the line that already runs through,” Ulatowski said. “Probably a bulk of that water would be used by Micron and any other chip fabs that are interested in the area.” 

His speculation derived from initial interest in development by other unnamed companies.  

President Joe Biden celebrates the Micron deal at the Museum of Science and Technology in downtown Syracuse on Thursday, April 25.
President Joe Biden visited Syracuse on April 25 to tout the Micron deal at the Museum of Science and Technology.

Ulatowski said public response has been mostly positive, noting a late March meeting attracted around 200 residents. Some in attendance like Michelle Easley expressed concerns such as worsening traffic the plant will create.  

“Where am I going to go?” Easley said. “[Will you] build a helicopter for me too?

“All of us are gonna be trapped and stuck.”

Environmental and chemical concerns

Aside from infrastructure concerns, there are a range of environmental concerns. Among the cautious is Donald Hughes, a chemistry professor at Le Moyne College and conservation chair of the Sierra Club’s Central and Northern New York Group. He emphasized the “alarming” amount of chemicals used in production fabs. 

“They use half of the non-radioactive elements on the periodic table,” Hughes said. “And those are incorporated into a lot of different combinations.” 

Particularly alarming is the use of toxic chemicals known as PFAS, or poly- and perfluorinated alkyl substances, that coincide with wastewater management concerns. While there is typically a pretreatment process for the chemicals, those that do not get properly treated may enter sewage systems, continue to sewage treatment plants and then later be released into rivers. 

“The problem with these compounds – and there are thousands – is that they last forever, they do not break down,” Hughes said.

Hughes added that sewage treatment plants are only equipped for biological materials  – where water can be disinfected and released to rivers – not for chemicals that can make their way there if not dissolved in pretreatment. The chemicals can seep into groundwater and contaminate drinking water. Contaminated sludge, another product of sewage plants, can lead to a slew of other issues if used on agricultural land. 

Speaking at the March meeting at the Clay Town Hall, Hughes presented documents to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that outlined concerns about the proposed facility from himself and members of environmental groups. This included a list of the chemicals that the document alleges are used in the process. 

Worker safety and chemical spills are another concern, as chemicals are delivered to Micron rather than produced in the plants themselves. Experts say this activity leaves room for seemingly inevitable disasters.

Water usage and electricity have been issues with another chip-making entity, the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC). The Guardian cited the plant uses about 5% of the country’s electricity and water usage sparked conflicts with farmers. While Micron has set a goal of 100% renewable electricity, company officials have not provided details of how this will be achieved.  

This is one of the things that concerns Peter Wirth, vice president of Climate Change Awareness and Action, a Syracuse-based activist group in contact with Micron. Like Hughes, Wirth noted the danger of chemicals, but also mentioned the usage of natural gas, which requires a gas line, and the sheer amount of electricity Micron needs. According to Wirth, the fabs will use as much electricity as the states of Vermont and New Hampshire. 

“We’re trying to get clarity as to what the natural gas would be used for,” Wirth said. “My understanding is that with a high capacity or a high-pressure gas line of that size, you could be talking about millions or tens of millions of cubic feet of natural gas.”

He suggested solar panels for the 100 million square feet of proposed roofing for the plant, aligning with Micron’s decision for a Singapore fabrication plant. But Micron has said already it will not use solar panels for the Clay plants. 

Wirth clarified that doesn’t imply deceit, but highlighted the challenge he’s experienced trying to get answers on what Micron’s renewable electricity entails. He advocates for enhanced transparency and believes that prioritizing sustainable practices could position Micron as a leading example of success in the industry.

“If they can avoid burning as much as possible, why not do it?” Wirth said. “I mean with climate change, it’s death by a million cuts.

“Micron could be a real shining example of the right way to do things.”

Expansion and economic prosperity

The decision to open a plant in Clay coincides with Micron’s plan for U.S. growth, in contrast to international locations in Taiwan, Malaysia and Japan. Another expansion is planned for Boise, Idaho, where Micron’s headquarters are located.  

Communications senior manager Jill Youmans, from the Office of the Mayor for Boise, Idaho, provided insight into the city’s relationship with Micron.  

“Micron was a key partner in Boise’s Advanced Water Treatment Pilot, the first step in Boise’s Recycled Water Program,” Youmans wrote in a statement. “We view Micron as a valued partner in our efforts to protect our environment, develop our workforce and create family-wage jobs in the Treasure Valley.” 

Micron has set “ambitious targets” such as cutting greenhouse gas emission by 42% by 2030 and reaching 100% clean energy in the U.S. by 2025, Youmans said.

Despite this positive feedback, residents of Boise and Clay, like Easley, have expressed concerns about a mass influx of workers. With cars constantly passing through Clay on Route 31, traffic presents a substantial issue. 

Tyler Branigan, a Coronat Scholar majoring in environmental, sustainability and policy studies, has discussed the traffic influx in his policy classes at Syracuse University.

Branigan’s stance landed in the middle, although he is concerned about influx, output and waste produced, he also sees the potential for growth in Syracuse. 

“I’m hoping a lot of those really high-paying jobs bring in a lot of spending power for local businesses,” Branigan said.