At the end of the month, the final primary lead smelter in the United States will close down for good. This lead smelter, located in Herculaneum, Missouri, is owned and operated by the Doe Run Company and has existed in the same location since 1892.

It is currently the only smelter in the United States which can produce lead bullion from raw lead ore. Following production in Herculaneum, the lead bullion is sold to lead product producers, including ammunition manufactures, for use in conventional ammunition components. This would include projectiles, projectile cores, and primers.

So, why is the Herculaneum plant closing? The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports:

“About 145 employees of the Doe Run lead smelter [in Herculaneum, Missouri] learned they will lose their jobs at the end of December because of the plant’s closure, the Doe Run Co. said Wednesday. An additional 73 contractor jobs also will be eliminated.

The job cuts were expected. The plant, which has operated for more than a century and is the lone remaining lead smelter in the United States, announced in 2010 that it will cease operations at the end of this year.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said the company ‘made a business decision’ to shut down the smelter instead of installing pollution control technologies needed to reduce sulfur dioxide and lead emissions as required by the Clean Air Act.”

In a document published on its website, the EPA explains that in order for Doe Run to continue its operations, the company would have to agree to pay “$65 million to correct violations of several environmental laws at 10 of its lead mining, milling and smelting facilities in southeast Missouri. The settlement also requires the company to pay a $7 million civil penalty.”

However, Doe Run issued a press release stating the fine and the required upgrades to its facilities were “too financially risky.”

How will this impact the United States?

  • It has been noted that without ammunition, a gun is just a club. Many are viewing the plant closure as an indirect assault on the right to keep and bear arms.
  • One underreported aspect of the Doe Run story is the relationship of the closure to a multinational agreement: the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The New American asks: “What does the United States’ membership in the TPP have to do with the EPA’s forced closure of a lead smelting plant— a plant, while not critical to the manufacture of ammunition, certainly important to that crucial function?” The connection lies in the fact that two of the countries from which the United States will now be importing lead are Peru and Australia and both are members of the 13-nation bloc participating in the TPP. What’s more, the third exporter that the United States will soon have to rely on for the lead necessary to make ammunition is China. The New American reports that, “although China isn’t currently negotiating with the other Pacific Rim countries in establishing the TPP, on November 1, the Chinese state-run media reported: In Novermber 2011, President Obama tipped his hand in this high-stakes game of trade talks when he told Chinese media, ‘Now, if China says, we want to consult with you about being part of this [the TPP] as well, we welcome that.’”
  • There are a few “secondary” smelters, in which lead is recycled from products such as lead acid batteries or spent ammunition components, still in operation in the U.S. Once the Herculaneum plant is shuttered, all refined lead (beyond scrap) will have to be imported from other nations.
  • Additionally, lead is a mineral critical to the military. Without the Doe Run facility, America faces a future of dependency on foreign nations for its small arms ammunition supply chain. Components such as bullet projectiles, projectile cores and primers all require lead. So, without the Doe Run smelter, the domestic manufacture of conventional ammunition, from mine to finished cartridge, will be impossible. Of course, ammunition can still be produced via recycled lead, but it’s anyone’s guess as to how long that supply would last if our access to imports is ever compromised. The United States, with the largest military in the world, would be reduced to not even being able to manufacture its own bullets.
  • Lead is also an economically critical mineral. It’s used in cable coverings, roof flashings, radiation shielding for airport security, nuclear energy storage, medical applications and batteries for the vehicle market.

Recently, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law a bill that will ban lead ammunition for all hunting in California. The Center for Biological Diversity has made many attempts to get similar regulations passed at the federal level by trying, and repeatedly failing, to get the EPA to regulate conventional ammunition under the Toxic Substances Control Act.

The Doe Run closure is in addition to all of the EPA’s regulatory edicts that are destroying the coal industry, the former EPA director’s efforts to evade disclosure by using secret emails and the Obama administration’s relentless efforts to shut down the Keystone pipeline. Whatever the EPA’s motivation when creating the new lead air quality standard, increasingly prohibitive regulation of lead will impact the production and costs of ammunition.