When the St. Joseph Lead Co. finished work on its 350-foot smoke stack in 1892, the mining company’s pact with tiny Herculaneum, Missouri, was sealed. The town would enjoy more than a century of good-paying jobs while the plant belched sulfur-laced emissions.
Three decades after discovering the town’s blessing was life-threatening, its toxic partnership ends next week when the largest and last lead smelter in the U.S. shuts down.
The Dec. 31 closing of the smelter on the west bank of the Mississippi River, south of St. Louis, marks the end of an era in a region that has supplied most of the nation’s lead since the 1700s. Almost always, the roads and rails from the mines in southeast Missouri’s lead belt ran to Herculaneum.
“Never thought it would go away,” said Herculaneum Mayor Bill Haggard, nodding toward the smelter whose stack is now 550 feet tall, about the height of the Washington Monument. While lead mining continues in Missouri, the halt of smelting echoes the economics that contributed to the decline of high-sulfur coal excavation in the Midwest.
“This is part and parcel of the de-industrialization of America,” said Eric Clements, a Missouri State University history professor who specializes in mining. “There comes a point where economically you can’t do it anymore.”
St. Louis-based Doe Run Co., the world’s third-largest producer of lead from mines, said it will stop smelting operations as part of a $65 million agreement with the U.S Environmental Protection Agency and the state of Missouri. The company has operated the facility since 1986.
Doe Run said the estimated $100 million cost to build a new facility and meet air-quality standards was too risky.
“We saw no alternative to closing our plant,” Gary Hughes, general manager of Doe Run’s Metals Division, said in a Dec. 14 statement.
The smelter’s announced closing provoked a furor on some conservative Web publications. Newsmax.com reported Dec. 11 that “EPA Rules Force Closure of Last Ammo Maker.” Thetrumpet.com lamented on Nov. 14 that the U.S. “may become dependent on foreign nations for its small-arms ammunition supply chain.”
Eighty percent of the lead processed at the Herculaneum smelter goes toward battery production, the company said. The smelter doesn’t currently supply bullet manufacturers, a spokeswoman said.
Ammunition accounts for about 3 percent of the end use of all lead processed worldwide, according to the International Lead and Zinc Study Group, with batteries representing four-fifths.
Doe Run said it will export more semi-processed ore after the closing of the smelter, using facilities in other countries, including Canada and Mexico.
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