The Doe Run Company is entering its final days of smelter operations in Herculaneum, where primary lead metal has been produced for 120 years. Doe Run’s smelter will cease smelting operations at the end of the month.
“We will receive the final shipment of lead concentrates from our Missouri mines in the next several days, producing one of the highest grades of primary lead metal in the world in the final weeks of December,” said Gary Hughes, general manager of Doe Run’s Metals Division.
Doe Run’s lead mines and mills elsewhere in the state, which will continue to operate, produce some of the world’s highest quality lead concentrate. The product is valued by metal producers across the globe. Lead is a key component of batteries used for transportation and backup power in a variety of industries including technology, communications and renewable energy.
Approximately 98 percent of lead-acid batteries are recycled, turning the used metals and other components into new products. More than 13 million of these batteries are recycled annually at Doe Run’s lead recycling center located in southern Missouri, one of the world’s largest single-site lead recycling centers in the world. In addition to battery production, lead also has medical and military applications.
“Although we will continue to mine and mill lead, zinc, and copper from our underground mines, the ability to produce primary lead metal and their alloys domestically will vanish,” Hughes stated.
Following the closure of the smelter, 75 employees will be retained in 2014 to assist with continued refining and alloying, and the maintenance of the Herculaneum site.
Historically, the smelter in Herculaneum operated with approximately 300 employees, many of which commuted north from St. Francois and other surrounding counties.
Then in 2010 the company announced it would cease primary smelting this year.
“We have been working with our Herculaneum employees this past year to help them transition into new roles,” said Pat Garey, talent manager at Doe Run. “We opened a Career Center in 2012 and have assisted employees with job skill assessment and development, resume and interview skill-building, access to internal and external job postings, and assistance with a variety of other resources.
“We have a strong, dedicated and highly skilled workforce. We are doing what we can to help them move into their next desired role.”
Last month and earlier this month Doe Run hosted four career fairs with area employers to help provide possible job opportunities for its Herculaneum employees.
Closure of the plant seemingly stems from tightening federal regulations. In 2010, Doe Run reached a comprehensive settlement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the State of Missouri. As part of that settlement, Doe Run agreed to discontinue its smelting operations in Herculaneum by the end of 2013.
“We saw no alternative to closing our plant,” stated Hughes. “We are aware of no primary lead smelting process that will meet the standard for ambient air at the Herculaneum site.
“We believe the only existing technology that can meet today’s standards in Herculaneum, as well as potential future standards, is the new electrowinning lead metal process we announced in 2010. We hoped to be building such a plant by now, however constructing a full-scale plant given other regulatory compliance spending requirements puts our company at financial risk. We may pursue a smaller scale plant if conditions become more favorable.”
The U.S. ambient air quality standard for lead emissions is the most restrictive in the world. In 2008, the National Ambient Air Quality Standard for lead was reduced from 1.5 ìg/m3 (micrograms of lead per cubic meter of air) to 0.15 ìg/m3.
Doe Run had once hoped to bring the revolutionary lead metal production technology online prior to the closure of the smelter. The new technology uses a wet-chemical electrowinning process instead of a heat-based smelting process, greatly reducing sulfur dioxide and lead emissions.
In 2012 the company announced that costs to build an electrowinning plant similar in production size to the existing smelter were too great for the company given the present economic conditions.
“Nearly every lead-acid battery produced in the U.S. is using lead metal that at some point originated with our mines and smelters,” explained Aaron Miller, Doe Run’s chief operating officer. “Today, much of the demand for lead and lead alloys can be met through recycling. However, specialty applications, as well as material for market growth, will have to come from foreign sources in the future. Without an adequate supply of imported lead, demand in the U.S. will soon outpace availability of lead metal.”
Doe Run supplied 8 to 10 percent of U.S. demand for lead through its Herculaneum smelter.