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Doe run develops cleaner lead process


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Doe run develops cleaner lead process

  1. 1. print | close Doe Run's new technology could end need for lead smelter BY KIM MCGUIRE ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH Sunday, Mar. 21 2010 Doe Run Co. officials confirmed last week that they've successfully tested an environmentally friendly technology that could change how the company produces lead — a development that might mean the end of smelting operations in Herculaneum. The new technology relies on a wet chemical process that would essentially replace the heat-based smelting process used in lead production for more than 100 years. Company officials said the technology would help them improve overall recovery rates of lead while dramatically curbing pollution, including air emissions of both lead and sulfur dioxide. Lead is a neurotoxin that can interrupt normal brain development and has been linked to behavioral problems in children. "It's not only safer, it's cleaner," Bruce Neil, Doe Run's president and chief executive officer, said in an exclusive interview with the Post-Dispatch. "Importantly to us, it's more efficient." Doe Run officials said the new technology would allow them to continue to meet the world's demand for lead while eliminating 99 percent of all current land, air and water pollution releases. For years, smelters in Herculaneum and La Oroya, Peru, operated by Doe Run and a sister company have been emitting lead into the environment, spurring citizen lawsuits and sanctions by environmental regulators. And while the company has invested millions of dollars to improve emission
  2. 2. control technologies at both smelters, many environmentalists and community activists have questioned how the company could continue to operate, particularly in the United States, where environmental regulations have gotten tougher. Doe Run officials said the new technology would help them meet those higher standards while fulfilling future demands for lead. Batteries used to power hybrid vehicles and store renewable energy are among the growing sectors. A 20-YEAR SEARCH The company has been pursuing a new way to produce lead for almost 20 years. By the end of this year, it will have invested almost $30 million to bring the new technology to fruition. Known as "FLUBOR," the new technology was patented by Engitec, an Italian engineering company. Doe Run and Engitec first partnered in the early 1990s as the Missouri company was building its Buick Resource Recycling Division in Boss. At the time, Engitec had already discovered FLUBOR but had not tested it on a commercial scale. "What occurred to us is that this could be used for (lead) concentrates," Neil said. "And if it did, it could be a game-changer." In the late 1990s, Doe Run built a pilot plant to test the technology. Convinced it could be deployed on an industrial-sized scale, the company's board authorized spending $6 million in 2006 to build a demonstration plant at its former West Fork Mill near Viburnum. The plant began operating in 2007 but was shut down in early 2009 for nine months to save money, company officials said. It has been in continuous operation since November, and the global engineering and construction firm CH2M HILL has conducted a preliminary feasibility study that validates the technology.
  3. 3. "This has never been done before for lead," said Dave Olkkonen, Doe Run's manager for research and technical development. "No one has ever been able to do what we've accomplished today." The basic chemistry behind FLUBOR is relatively straightforward — a solution that contains fluorboric acid dissolves lead concentrates. Lead is then extracted using an electric current. This "electrowinning" process is similar to a technology used to extract zinc and copper from concentrates, but it has never been used in primary lead production. "It's a lot easier to get a pure product in the copper industry," said Jon Nielsen, Engitec's site process and technological manager at the West Fork plant. "It's much more difficult in the lead industry. But that's what we've been able to do here through a lot of hard work and in-depth analysis." Among the benefits, Doe Run officials said, is that the operation is self-contained so the solution can be recycled indefinitely. Not only does the technology reduce air emissions, it also eliminates slag, a glassy, silica-rich by-product produced in the smelting process, which the company currently stores on-site in Herculaneum. Because more lead is being captured in the new process, company officials said the technology would help extend the life of the company's U.S. mines, which are situated in Missouri. SEARCHING FOR FUNDING Hurdles remain for the Maryland Heights-based company. Doe Run officials estimate it would cost between $100 million and $150 million to take the project from a demonstration plant to a commercial-sized operation. Last year, Doe Run applied for recovery act funding through the U.S. Department of Energy, but the project was not selected.
  4. 4. The company continues to pursue funding, and last month applied for a DOE-backed loan. "When we talk about the final steps we have to overcome, financing is a critical one," Neil said. For the DOE-grant application process, three of Doe Run's customers have signed letters of support, pledging to continue to do business with the company as it pursued the new technology. Bob Flicker, chief operating officer for battery manufacturer East Penn, said his company was experiencing an increasing demand for lead products. The company needs Doe Run, he said. "There is a growing global demand for lead, and with increasing competition from places like India and China, it's good to have a domestic source of lead, especially one using a clean technology," Flicker said. "It's a very exciting time for us and the lead industry." Although the new technology could replace smelting process, company officials say it doesn't necessarily mean the Herculaneum facility would close. That's partly because the Jefferson County smelter currently houses the companies' casting and alloy operations, which would be unaffected by the deployment of the FLUBOR process. The same holds true for the company's mining, milling and recycling operations in the state. Neil said the company might want to keep casting and alloy services at the Herculaneum facility. Nonetheless, the company is searching for a location to build a new commercial facility, one Neil said he would prefer to build "in our backyard." Herculaneum officials said they would hate see any smelter jobs leave but were hopeful that loss could be offset by the city's landing a new river port.
  5. 5. Herculaneum is one of four locations being eyed by the Jefferson County Port Authority for construction of a new port on the Mississippi River. The proposed Herculaneum site is situated on Doe Run property. "This technology would definitely be a plus for the city," said Herculaneum Mayor Gina Vinyard. "At the same time, we're trying to get the port, and Herculaneum would be an ideal spot should Doe Run choose not to do business here." And not all Herculaneum residents see Doe Run as an asset. Over the years, several homeowners have sued the company, claiming smelter emissions have harmed them and decreased their property values. In 2004, a Herculaneum couple, Jack and Leslie Warden, along with Missouri Coalition for the Environment, filed a successful lawsuit that prompted EPA to adopt tougher air quality standards for lead. When the new rules were announced, Jefferson County was one of two places in the nation that didn't meet the old standard. The EPA identified Doe Run as the primary local source of that pollutant. "The new national standard is protective of public health, and the ancient lead smelting technology in use today at Herculaneum is not," said Kathleen Logan-Smith, the coalition's director. She said she was pleased to hear the company was embracing a "21st-century technology" but questioned what kind of water and energy needs a new plant might have and whether new wastes would be produced. Company officials did not indicate whether the new technology would be used at the Peru smelter, which has been shut down since mid-2009. "As for Peru, their focus is on meeting the current obligations they have with the Peruvian government," Neil said. "I do believe that this could be built anywhere in the world, and if that turns out to be the case, it's a
  6. 6. game-changer for the industry." The company's plan for the coming months include completing a detailed feasibility study while continuing to make operational tweaks at the West Fork facility to improve cost efficiency. Under the best-case scenario, the company would have financing secured by the end of the year, complete a detailed engineering study the next, and open a new plant sometime in mid-2013, Neil said. Neil concedes the company is heading into unchartered territory, which carries a certain amount of risk, but believes the new technology will help Doe Run remain competitive in years to come. "I think lead is an important metal for the country," he said. "I believe it's a strategic metal. I think this assures we can have a lead technology in the country that allows us to produce it and not be reliant on other sources."