SILVERTON, Idaho – A dozen years after being banned from gasoline, lead is making a comeback. Prices are near record highs. China can’t get enough of the ubiquitous gray metal. And in Great Britain, ancient churches are losing lead roofs to thieves, who filch the metal to sell for scrap. Thefts have become so brazen that insurance companies have started putting traceable compounds in replacement roofs.
It’s all good news for Galena Mine near Silverton, Idaho, which will produce about 12 1/2 million pounds of lead this year.
At Galena’s mill, Mark Hartmann let a handful of crushed ore trickle through his fingers.
“This is where the money is,” said Hartmann, president of U.S. Silver Corp., the mine’s operator.
Ashy-gray, with a slightly gritty texture, the ore had been ground up and put through a concentrator, where valuable minerals are separated from the host rock.
Silver is Galena’s chief moneymaker. It’s selling for about $17 per ounce. Lead is a humbler commodity, at $1 a pound.
But the underground mine yields 5 pounds of lead for each ounce of silver. At that volume, even modest gains in lead prices make a difference in the company’s bottom line, Hartmann said.
The nearby Lucky Friday Mine will produce about 36 million pounds of lead this year as a byproduct of silver extraction.
The lead from Idaho will probably end up in a battery. It could be a battery made – and used – in China.
In the past five years lead prices have quadrupled. Demand for lead-acid batteries, particularly from China, is the primary driver, according to the U.S. Geological Survey’s commodity report.
Batteries account for 80 percent of the world’s lead consumption. Last year Chinese automobile sales shot up 25 percent, and the sales of scooters and electric bikes also are growing. Once a lead exporter, China now imports the metal.
“When you have 1 billion-plus people starting to consume lead, it creates a huge demand,” Hartmann said.
People in industrialized countries don’t think about it, but lead is all around them, said James Grubbs, vice president of sales and marketing for Doe Run Inc. in St. Louis, the nation’s largest lead producer.
There’s the obvious – the lead bib that protects people from X-rays in the dentist’s office And the less obvious: cell phone towers.
Each tower contains about 100 pounds of lead in backup batteries, Grubbs said. Batteries also provide backup power systems for computers and hospital equipment.
Invented by a French physicist in 1859, lead-acid batteries rely on chemical reactions between lead and sulfuric acid to create a charge. They’re the oldest type of rechargeable battery.
Worldwide, lead-acid batteries are in more than 600 million vehicles, according to Doe Run. Each car battery requires about 22 pounds of lead.
The lead industry also hopes to grab a share of the hybrid business. A consortium of producers is working on a battery to compete with the nickel-metal-hydride batteries used in most hybrid vehicles – or lithium-ion batteries, considered the next generation battery for hybrids.
“Lead is going to be an important metal to help us combat things such as global warming,” said U.S. Silver’s Hartmann, noting that energy from solar panels is stored in lead-acid batteries.
“It’s a little bit ironic,” he added, “that the green movement is such a large user of lead.”
Humans have used lead for at least 5,000 years, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. It’s versatile, relatively abundant – and toxic in even tiny doses.
Lead exposure is associated with a range of health problems, including anemia, mental retardation, kidney disease and decreased sperm production.
Lead was banned from most paints in 1977 amid growing knowledge of its role as a toxin. In 1996 the Environmental Protection Agency completed a 25-year phaseout of leaded gasoline. Nationally, blood-lead levels in children dropped 70 percent during that time.
Locally, lead played a prominent role in the designation of a Superfund site that stretches from the floodplains of the Coeur d’Alene River to Lake Coeur d’Alene and the upper reaches of the Spokane River.
The legacy of metals contamination is found in swans that die from ingesting lead-tainted soil in marshes; warning signs on swim beaches; and advisories about limiting consumption of fish caught on certain stretches of the river.
According to the EPA’s toxic release inventory, Idaho’s mining industry still accounts for most of the lead released into the environment from industrial causes. But it’s a trickle compared to the days when companies dumped tailings into rivers.
“The mines operating in the Silver Valley today contribute less than 1 percent of the metal loading into the river,” said Vicki Veltkamp, a spokeswoman for Hecla Mining Co., which operates Lucky Friday Mine.
In some ways, lead has become an environmental success story, said Doe Run’s Grubb.
In the United States, recycling rates for batteries beat out newspapers and even aluminum cans, according to EPA figures. Nearly 99 percent of the lead in lead-acid batteries is recovered, Grubbs said.
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