Regulations Leave US Lead Industry Out in the Cold

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HERCULANEUM, Mo. -- Most people think of lead as a toxic metal. Too much exposure in the air, water, or food can be extremely dangerous.

The Environmental Protection Agency highlighted some of the health risks in a statement to CBN News.

"Ingestion of lead at high levels can cause convulsions, coma, and even death," the EPA said. "Lower levels of lead can cause adverse health effects on the central nervous system, kidney, and blood cells."

"Even very low levels of lead in the blood of children can result in permanent damage to the brain and nervous system, slowed growth, and anemia," the agency warned.

But lead is also a valuable resource that is essential in many of the products we use every day. It's most commonly used in batteries. Without them, your car wouldn't start.

Lead also helps protect our society. Lead aprons shield patients from X-ray's. It's used in ammunition, and it also provides a safety barrier around nuclear reactors.

EPA Lead Crackdown

Whether you know it or not, you use 11 pounds of lead every year. But as of 2014, there will be far less lead available to meet a growing demand because of tighter EPA regulations.

In 2008, the EPA dropped the ambient air standards for lead by nearly tenfold. In order to meet those new standards, companies either spent millions on upgrades or shut down.

Doe Run was one of those companies. It put $25 million in environmental improvements into the Herculaneum Smelter, the last place in the country that could take lead from the ground and process it.

But that wasn't enough. On Dec. 31, the Herculaneum Smelter closed its doors, meaning the United States could no longer turn ore into 99.9 percent pure lead. Now, only secondary or recycled lead will be available.

In operation for 120 years, the Herculaneum Smelter produced 8 to 10 percent of the demand for lead in the United States. Now all primary lead will have to come from foreign sources.

"As a company we will still provide lead concentrate that can be turned into primary lead," Mark Coomes, Doe Run vice president of Human Resources and Community Relations, said. "However, that lead concentrate will be sent to other countries, mostly in Europe and Asia."

China is expected to be where much of that lead concentrate ends up. But Doe Run said that once it leaves the United States it's unlikely the nation will be getting it back because China will have its own uses for it.

"We all know that most of the raw materials that go into China don't return in that format," Coomes said. "They're either used by the country itself to develop their infrastructure or turned into finished goods that are then supplied to other countries around the world, exported to other countries around the world."

Clean Alternative?

Doe Run acknowledged both the health and environmental dangers of lead, and has even pursued a clean alternative to high temperature smelting.

Coomes explained it as a hydrometallurgical process that virtually eliminates all of the emissions. But the EPA's changing regulatory environment made that technology simply too expensive.

Doe Run said more communication from the EPA could have made all the difference.

"Having some insight into the direction the EPA was taking in this example of the ambient air standards and partnering with the EPA in setting those things, would have been a much better condition and outcome for companies in our industry to maintain the viability of our businesses," Coomes told CBN News.

Lead market analyst Neil Hawkes said only time will tell if the gap left by the closure of the Herculaneum Smelter can be filled.

"Where is the supply going to come from?" Hawkes asked. "Because I think globally the lead market is tightening and we certainly have the market moving into an overall supply and demand deficit over the next five years or so."

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Caitlin Burke

Caitlin Burke

CBN News Reporter

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