ST. LOUIS (AP) — The nation's biggest lead producer said Friday it was abandoning plans to build a new $100 million plant in an eastern Missouri town but would go ahead with mothballing its existing smelter there by the end of next year.
St. Louis-based Doe Run Co. had insisted the new plant would include processing technology that would be more environmentally friendly than its existing smelter in Herculaneum that has been scorned for decades by environmentalists and regulators.
But Doe Run has "concluded that building a plant (in Herculaneum) would generate an unacceptable financial risk to the company," Jerry Pyatt, the company's vice president and chief operating officer, said in a statement. "We recognize this may be disappointing news for many. However, we see a bright future for Doe Run. We continue to be a strong business, and we are actively expanding our exploration in North America."
Pyatt said the company would continue to explore using the technology with other mineral resources, and "we will work with our employees to help them plan for their transition" as the smelter in Herculaneum — a 3,600-resident Mississippi River town about 30 miles south of St. Louis — closes by 2014.
Pyatt said Doe Run would continue supporting the repurposing of the Herculaneum site for future business and employment ventures.
Doe Run's announcement last year that it planned to build the new plant in Herculaneum was welcome news for many there. In addition to 270 jobs, the smelter has generated tax revenue considered vital for local government, including more than 10 percent of the local property tax for the Dunklin School District.
It is the nation's only primary lead smelter, extracting from raw ore the lead used in things such as car batteries, computer screens and X-ray shields. Doe Run has previously warned that if the old smelter were closed and not replaced, the U.S. risked becoming dependent on China and other countries for its primary lead metal.
Still, the Herculaneum smelter has always presented a quandary for Herculaneum. Residents have sued Doe Run over pollution from the plant, and the company has grappled with state regulators and the Environmental Protection Agency over its ability to contain the lead. Lead poisoning can hurt learning, IQ and memory in children, and cause cardiovascular, blood pressure and kidney problems in adults.
Over the past three decades, the EPA has cited Doe Run and fined the company many times for air pollution, lead dust in homes, and elevated levels of the metal in yards and children's blood.
Doe Run has responded by buying out 130 residential properties near the smelter and replacing the soil at more than 500 homes. Much of that property has been transformed into the off-limits green space.
Herculaneum Mayor Bill Haggard viewed Friday's news with sadness.
"Obviously, we are disappointed they are not going to be building anywhere," he said, looking ahead to next year's closure. "All along we thought it was going to be built. We always thought (the smelter) would be there. It has been there for more than a century, and it will be a little strange to think we're not going to see it anymore."