Toxic-waste shadow follows computer-chip makers

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High tech's image may be slipping a bit.

With traditional heavy industries seen to be on the skids, microelectronics has had an aura of gold. It is lauded as a high-paying, clean industry that will develop the Sunbelt and help rejuvenate the ''mature'' economies of New England.

But the semiconductor industry is, after all, a chemical industry, with some of the same waste-disposal problems and workplace exposure hazards of other chemical industries, such as acids and poisonous gases. Of particular concern is long-term low-level exposure to fumes from solvents used in microchip production.

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Critics suggest that the high-tech industries so many Sunbelt states are working so hard to attract may not be as pollution-free as state officials seem to believe. These critics fear there may be a tendency to pull in the firms first and ask questions about hazards later.

In North Carolina, for example, Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. has hailed the microelectronics industry.

''Clean industry only need apply'' is the line being pushed in North Carolina , which just came out No. 2 in a national survey of states preferred for new plant locations.

But Joseph G. (Chip) Hughes has conducted a survey for the North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research of those companies recruited to North Carolina from 1977 to 1981. He has found the levels of toxic waste produced by these new firms to be considerably higher than those of the state's traditional industries , textiles, tobacco, and furnituremaking.

A state study of the environmental impact of new firms in North Carolina found that much of their waste, he says, was disposed of simply ''In Pits, Ponds , and Lagoons'' - in the words of the study's title.

In North Carolina as elsewhere, semiconductor people say they have rigorous environmental controls and employee exposure monitoring. Contaminated process water is treated with lime to precipitate out salts before discharging into the local sewers. The resultant sludge is taken to federally regulated disposal sites.

Hearings on the siting of new waste management facilities are scheduled for later this month; Mr. Hughes charges that the firms seeking approval for new facilities ''all have picked areas in rural black counties without particular political clout.''

Paul Wilms of the North Carolina Department of Natural Resources and Community Development says, ''Certainly there's been no naivete on the part of regulatory agencies here about the chemical industries that these are,'' and that he finds the state's controls adequate.

The debate on how warmly North Carolina should embrace microelectronics is subdued, to say the least. Debate over hazards in the semiconductor industry in California is a bit higher pitched.

Says Amanda Hawes, a board member of the Santa Clara Committee on Occupational Safety and Health and a lawyer who has handled many workers' compensation cases:

''The semiconductor industry uses a large volume of toxic chemicals, and there are problems of long-term exposure, and groundwater contamination and other environmental hazards.

''They use trade-secret argument to hush things up - dangerous leaks, spills, and air pollution problems.

''It's quite remarkable that we haven't had worse disasters.''

The semiconductor industry uses poisonous gases, such as arsine - a whiff of which was blamed for the death of a worker in a Massachusetts Institute of Technology lab in recent weeks.

No one really knows for sure, Ms. Hawes argues, the dangers to workers of low-level, long-term exposures to fumes of solvents used in the chipmaking.

Whether you consider the semiconductor industry a ''major'' toxic waste producer depends on your frame of reference. A semiconductor plant may produce about 30 drums of waste per month, or 55 gallons per day. A chemical processing plant may produce in the range of 40,000 to 50,000 gallons per day.

Like the safety of nuclear power, the safety of the semiconductor industry may be an issue on which people end up taking sides on emotional rather than rational grounds.

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