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Doe Run's new technology could end need for lead
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
lead — a development that might mean the end of smelting operations in
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
"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
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.
"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
"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.
The company continues to pursue funding, and last month applied for a
"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
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
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.
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
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
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."