Grenoble demands ‘water not microchips!’, by Raúl Guillén & Vincent Peyret (Le Monde diplomatique

Environmental activists protest in Crolles, near Grenoble, 1 April 2023

Jean-Philippe Ksiazek · AFP · Getty

On 1 April around a thousand protesters demanded ‘Water, not chips!’ outside the new extension of the STMicroelectronics (ST) factory in Crolles. But since 1992, when the French-Italian semiconductor maker moved into this small town north of Grenoble, Crolles has been more accustomed to visits by ministers and heads of state than protests. Every French president since Jacques Chirac has come here to celebrate extensions of the facility and announce hundreds of millions of euros in state aid.

‘France’s reindustrialisation is happening right here,’ Emmanuel Macron said on a visit last July, when he promised a €2.3bn state contribution to the projected €5.7bn cost of the new facility (1). To build it, ST (jointly owned by France’s public investment bank Bpifrance and the Italian state) has joined up with another semiconductor giant, GlobalFoundries (registered in the Cayman Islands) (2), whose principal shareholder is Mubadala Investment Company, a United Arab Emirates sovereign wealth fund.

‘It’s the largest industrial investment project in recent decades outside the nuclear sector, and a big step forward for France’s industrial sovereignty,’ said economy minister Bruno Le Maire. The sum involved seemed huge next to the number of potential jobs – just a thousand, which works out at €2.3m of state aid per job. Despite France’s generosity, ST has its operational headquarters in Switzerland and its holding company in the Netherlands, described by Challenges magazine as ‘the land of tax optimisation for multinationals’ (30 November 2019).

Macron’s announcement came in the midst of a ‘heightened drought alert’ (level 3 out of 4), upgraded that August to a ‘crisis’ (level 4). Chipmaking is a particularly water-intensive industry, and by 2024, ST and the nearby Soitec group plant are on track to be using nearly 29,000 cubic metres per day, as much as the entire city of Grenoble. After this latest expansion, ST eventually expects to use 33,000 cubic metres per day.

Water-usage restrictions on households and farmers last summer contrasted sharply with growing industrial consumption, and led to the formation of the STopMicro collective (3), which campaigns against ‘the microelectronics industry’s greed for resources’. The demonstration in Crolles was presented as linked to protests against the mega-basin in Sainte-Soline (see Is storing water the real answer?, in this issue) but didn’t attract the same level of support, even from leftwing politicians. There was, for example, no public reaction from Europe Ecology-The Greens (EÉLV), though the party has two MPs from the Isère department in the National Assembly, and one senator, as well as the mayor of Grenoble, Éric Piolle.

Starlink satellites, Russian drones

Piolle is a firm supporter of ST’s expansion: ‘I believe microelectronics is the first sector where we’re seeing an industrial strategy for Europe in action. That’s a great thing.’ He says the company’s decision to make chips in Grenoble has the geopolitical benefit of making Europe less dependent on outside suppliers: ‘Buying semiconductors only from Asia is risky.’ Isère MP Cyrielle Chatelain, head of the National Assembly’s environmentalist group, takes a similar view: ‘When you’re talking reindustrialisation, you can’t say “We want short supply chains and good production conditions” and then say you don’t want things to be made in France. They have to be made somewhere, so the question is where they’ll be made and under what conditions.’

Both told us that the criticisms of water mega-basins, which ‘only benefit a small number of people’ in the agricultural sector, don’t apply to water consumption in the microelectronics sector. ‘ST’s products benefit everyone,’ Piolle said. But while they defend ST’s expansion, Piolle and Chatelain also emphasise the importance of reshoring, ‘green industries’, and the government having a say on water usage. ‘The idea is to keep things as low-tech as possible, but go high-tech when necessary,’ Piolle said.

You can’t say ‘We want short supply chains and good production conditions’ and then say you don’t want things to be made in France

Cyrielle Chatelain

Does that apply to current activities in Crolles? The ST and Soitec sites are both involved in the miniaturisation of integrated circuits (now just a few nanometres across, smaller than a living cell) on electronic chips. Their main products are microcontrollers (chips with all the features of a computer) and image sensors, both ‘in very high demand in the automotive, smart object, artificial intelligence and automation fields’, according to ST (4). Reindustrialisation is focused on precision applications and emerging markets. Chips made in Crolles can be found in Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites, self-driving cars, smartphones and advanced weaponry such as Russian drones used in Ukraine – though ST claims to have ceased doing business in Russia, according to an April 2023 report by French nonprofit Observatoire des Armements. Chips for basic uses (standard computers, 3G phones), which have less added value, are not made in Europe.

Using 29,000 cubic metres a day, the ST and Soitec sites would between them empty the Sainte-Soline mega-basin in just 22 days. The water they use to clean silicon wafers (semiconductor substrates) – 75% of what they consume, the rest being mainly used for air conditioning – has to be ultra-pure, with zero contaminants. Making it is an energy-intensive process involving filters and pumps, and is quicker and cheaper if you start with high-quality water (French government data shows ST’s site used 516 gigawatt-hours in 2021, as much as 230,000 people in France).

The water quality in Grenoble is excellent – it’s one of the few French cities where drinking water doesn’t require treatment – but there’s one problem: the catchment areas of the Romanche and Drac rivers, which supply ST’s water, lie south of the city, around 30km from Crolles. When the factory was built, 30 years ago, the local authorities paid for a dedicated pipeline to carry its water. In recent years they have invested in expanding its capacity by installing booster pumps to accelerate flow and doubling the end of the pipe.

‘A limit on daily pumping’

Despite this, the system is nearing capacity and the authorities are searching for ways to bring in even more water. Crolles’s mayor Philippe Lorimier is campaigning for the pipe to be doubled along its entire length, but Anne-Sophie Olmos, vice-president of the Grenoble-Alpes-Métropole intercommunal organisation in charge of the water cycle and catchment areas, doesn’t think that’s possible: ‘29,000 cubic metres is the best we can do. The 1967 declaration of public utility set a limit on daily pumping. We’re already at almost half that, and we can’t go any higher because if there’s a major pipe failure or pollution incident, one catchment area has to compensate for the other.’

Until recently, people in Grenoble believed the surrounding mountains protected their water supply; now they realise how vulnerable it is to industrial development. In January they learned that the aquifers under the city itself were highly polluted. For several decades, two chemical plants have been operating south of Grenoble, and the groundwater is now ‘degraded both at shallow levels and at depth, as a result of the numerous industrial activities in the area’, according to a 2022 study (5). The presence of chemicals such as chlorates, perchlorates, hexachlorobutadiene, perchloroethylene (PCE), chlorinated volatile organic compounds (CVOCs), pesticides, hydrocarbons, and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) makes it unusable, even for irrigation.

Fingers are being pointed at multinationals Arkema and Vencorex (chemicals) and Framatome (nuclear reactors), and especially the French government, which allows them to discharge pollutants. The aquifer concerned is downstream of the catchment areas for Grenoble’s drinking water, but traces of pollutants have been found there too. (The well at Les Mollots is less than 100m from one of the pollutant discharge points authorised by the departmental authorities.) The risk to the water supply has led Olomos to notify the public prosecutor: ‘Discharging pollutants is prohibited by the 1967 declaration of public utility [intended to protect catchment areas], but has been authorised by several decrees [dating back at least to 1986, with the latest in 2007 and 2013].’ Neither the government nor the regional directorate for the environment, development and housing was willing to answer questions.

ST and Soitec’s microelectronics factories are also upstream from the drinking water aquifer, and they too discharge polluting wastewater. In 2021 ST was using 21 tonnes of chemicals per year, a large proportion of which ended up in the effluent discharged into the Isère. Though the river has a high absorption and dispersal capacity, some 15kg of phosphorus, 120kg of ammoniacal nitrogen, 70kg of fluorides and 150kg of nitrogen (among other chemicals) were being discharged into it every day (6).

No independent monitoring

This pollution is likely to rise as ST’s output grows. Effluent discharge is not subject to independent monitoring, and ST is only required to report ‘core indicators’ which it ‘estimates are the most representative of its activities’ under the environmental responsibility principle set out in the EU’s Eco-Management and Audit Scheme (EMAS), which has shaped EU environmental declarations since 2001. So it’s impossible to know what quantities of other substances (tungsten, cobalt, titanium, tantalum etc) are discharged into the Isère. ST claims ‘effluent is treated in accordance with the regulations in force.’

ST insists it is working to increase the ratio of water it recycles, and local politicians we spoke to were sure of the company’s good faith. But the far-fetched ratios reported (40, 50 or even 60% recycled) are already at the inherent limits of the processes involved. Thanks to Grenoble’s excellent water quality, ST’s Crolles site has one of the world’s lowest water usages per wafer (1.7 cubic metres), but despite promises to boost recycling, ST wants to increase its water usage by 190% on 2021 levels. This February, the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes regional environmental authority mission published a damning report on the site’s expansion, notably criticising the ‘many omissions’ in ST’s documentation: ‘The project itself is not described in sufficient detail, including the initial status of water usage, status of water resources, aqueous and atmospheric discharges … The documents don’t make it possible to gain an adequate grasp of the environmental impact’ (7).

Why is the state so indulgent towards industry? In L’Apocalypse Joyeuse (Seuil, 2012), historian Jean-Baptiste Fressoz explains how the 1810 imperial decree that forms the basis of France’s current regulations on industrial facilities set environmental standards that were favourable to business. Pollution control, which had been a matter for local police (with penalties including prison sentences in some cases), was now in the hands of a centralised administration that relied on experts.

The decree’s promoter Jean-Antoine Chaptal, a former chemical industrialist, summed up its advantages as follows: ‘Before [the decree] factories were basically at the mercy of concerned neighbours.’ After the decree, once an industry was established the government had a duty to protect it, and it was ‘no longer a matter of examining whether or not that industry was beneficial’. Today, all environmental regulations are reviewed by the High Council for Prevention of Technological Risks, largely made up of technocrats and industrialists.

If this form of reindustrialisation has any merit, it is to remind Western consumers of the very real harm caused by digitisation of the economy. Even so, most of the damage to the environment and human health caused by the semiconductor sector (from rare-earth metal mining to electronic waste) occurs in poor countries. Grenoble demands ‘water not microchips!’, by Raúl Guillén & Vincent Peyret (Le Monde diplomatique

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