Horsehead VP discusses environmental concerns

Oct. 15, 2012 @ 12:28 PM

Rutherford County has very little to worry about when it comes to any environmental concerns surrounding the new Horsehead plant coming to the southern end of Rutherford County.

In an interview with The Daily Courier, Horsehead Senior Vice President of Corporate Affairs Ali Alavi said that the plant will work under a "minor air permit" issued by the Department of Natural Resources.

The new plant in Rutherford County, which is in the process of being constructed and will employ up to 250, is a completely different facility that any of the others operated by Horsehead.

"There are big differences between this plant and our existing smelters," Alavi said. "The one near Pittsburgh uses a high-temperature process and we are able to take a variety of zinc-bearing materials that might have otherwise been recycled and it uses a fair amount of carbon, making it very energy-intensive."

That plant in Pennsylvania currently operates under a "major air permit" from the Department of Natural Resources.

Alavi said that the Rutherford County facility does not require that kind of a permit because of the new processes it will undertake to recycle zinc metal.

The process

The facility in Rutherford County will take a product known as Waelz-oxide, which is a product of recycling electric arc furnace dust, and turn it into a high-grade zinc metal.

The initial dust comes from steel mills that create the dust from remelting old scrap steel. The Environmental Protection Agency listed that dust as a hazardous waste in the 1980s because of the high content of lead and cadmium.

Alavi said that Horsehead has looked for ways to recycle that dust as opposed to placing it in a hazardous landfill. He said that, between their facilities, Horsehead can recycle over 700,000 tons of the dust. In the first quarter of 2012, the company projected a yearly recycling of 660,000 tons.

"That's dust that would otherwise go into a landfill and is about 20 percent zinc," Alavi said. "That would be that much more zinc that would have to be mined in a virgin ore mine."

When that recycling is done, there are two products created — an iron-rich slag which is sold to cement and asphalt producers, and the Waelz-oxide, which is a crude zinc oxide.

That Waelz-oxide will be transported to the Rutherford County facility by rail and, immediately put into the process of solvent extraction to produce a high-grade zinc metal.

With any kind of recycling there can be cause for environmental concerns. However, Alavi said that the product coming to Rutherford County is not one of those concerns.

"With the Waelz-oxide, that's our raw material feed stock and it of great value to us," Alavi said. "We have every incentive to handle it the best way possible.

"It will not be exposed to the elements, so to speak. Our goal is to capture all of the zinc from that material and make the high-grade zinc metal."

He said that the entire process at the Rutherford County plant is "environmentally friendly."

"When we say its an environmentally friendly process, that's what we're getting at," Alavi said. "All of the environmental permits have been submitted and some have already been issued so, DNR has been involved with us since the very early stages."

Potential issues

That being said, he did not dismiss the potential to have absolutely no issue with the Rutherford County facility.

"It's hard to answer," Alavi said. "We're kind of engineering to address any potential issues in advance."

However, other steps have been engineered at the facility like secondary containment for any liquids and storm water containment for the capture of storm water that falls on the area and can be reused in the entire process.

Alavi said that, as for groundwater issues, any potential issues were being addressed with the design and location of the facility.

"You're an industrial facility and when people see tanks and things like that, you get painted with that brush," Alavi said.

He said that any by-products created by the process in Rutherford County will be resold or recycled for future use.

Stanly County

Initially, Horsehead looked at other areas of North Carolina to construct its new facility. One of those was in Stanly County.

However, officials in Stanly County expressed concern over its ability to treat a clear brine solution that comes as a result of the recycling process.

Alavi said that, with the Rutherford County plant, that solution will be placed directly into the Broad River.

"We've had extensive conversation with DNR and did our homework on the Broad River," Alavi said. "We went though the permitting process and have been awarded that permit to discharge the clean brine solution."

Compare and contrast

Currently, Horsehead operates four facilities across the country that handle the electric arc dust.

There is Palmerton, Pa., Chicago, a plant outside of Knoxville, Tenn. and a new facility recently opened in Barnwell, S.C.

The plant in Rutherford County is not similar to any of Horsehead's current operations. In fact, Alavi said that there are only three other facilities like the one being located in Rutherford County around the world.

A Spanish engineering company is providing the technology for parts of the Rutherford County facility and that company has produced the technology for the other three similar plants in the world.

Alavi reiterated that there is very little, if any, similarities between any of Horsehead's operations and the facility in Rutherford County.

"Comparing the facility in Rutherford County even with our other facilities across the county is like comparing apples to oranges," Alavi said.