I had wanted to wait for further developments and data to comment on this, but such may not be forthcoming. AmmoLand and many other venues reported on this.
In December, the final primary lead smelter in the United States will close. The lead smelter, located in Herculaneum, Missouri, and owned and operated by the Doe Run Company, has existed in the same location since 1892.
The Herculaneum smelter is currently the only smelter in the United States which can produce lead bullion from raw lead ore that is mined nearby in Missouri’s extensive lead deposits, giving the smelter its “primary” designation. The lead bullion produced in Herculaneum is then sold to lead product producers, including ammunition manufactures for use in conventional ammunition components such as projectiles, projectile cores, and primers. Several “secondary” smelters, where lead is recycled from products such as lead acid batteries or spent ammunition components, still operate in the United States.
Doe Run made significant efforts to reduce lead emissions from the smelter, but in 2008 the federal Environmental Protection Agency issued new National Ambient Air Quality Standards for lead that were 10 times tighter than the previous standard. Given the new lead air quality standard, Doe Run made the decision to close the Herculaneum smelter.
Whatever the EPA’s motivation when creating the new lead air quality standard, increasingly restrictive regulation of lead is likely to affect the production and cost of traditional ammunition. Just this month, 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 tried multiple times to get similar regulations at the federal level by trying, and repeatedly failing, to get the EPA to regulate conventional ammunition under the Toxic Substances Control Act.
At this time, it’s unclear if Doe Run or another company will open a new lead smelter in the United States that can meet the more stringent lead air quality standards by using more modern smelting methods.
What is clear is that after the Herculaneum smelter closes its doors in December, entirely domestic manufacture of conventional ammunition, from raw ore to finished cartridge, will be impossible.
Steve Johnson at The Firearm Blog cites the owners as saying “The EPA’s new clean air rules would require a $100 million dollar investment in new equipment. As such, the Doe Run Company has decided to close the site.” Steve also includes some informative graphs of lead production by country.
I have a number of comments concerning this closure. First of all, the company also states that the $100 million project is “too financially risky.” And that’s the crux of the issue. Folks, $100 million just isn’t that much for large scale production in any industry in America. My bet is that the company believes that it could very well spend $100 million and then continue to be denied the right to manufacture ammunition due to the fact that people writing rulings in the federal register are calling the shots. You know what I’ve said about the federal Leviathan. Oftentimes, their standard is a moving target.
Second, I question the degree to which the company is committed to the manufacture of ammunition components. Power companies who have to fight the EPA on a regular basis simply do what they must. Of course, power is regulated, but the market for ammunition won’t be going away.
Third, regardless of where you turn (and I include myself in that category), there is vast under-reporting on this. We have all discussed it, but there is a paucity of good information. I would like to know the degree to which this will affect the production, availability and price of ammunition in the U.S.? But in order to know that, one would have to know such things as: (1) what percentage of lead in ammunition comes from this plant as opposed to overseas (including processing of the raw ore), (2) how much lead is used in ammunition in the U.S. civilian market every year, (3) what will the cost be of shipping the raw ore overseas for manufacture, and (4) are there any plans to construct and operate another plant?
This kind of knowledge requires real reporting, and that’s something I only sometimes have the time or resources to do. Having said that, while this plant may not have been able to meet current EPA standards, it’s a sad day. I suspect that the EPA hasn’t targeted this plant because of its role in the manufacture of ammunition. Rather, the EPA targets all productive, money-making industry for onerous regulations, written inside the beltway by armies of lawyers, without regard for the practical affect of said regulations. It’s governance by federal register, and it’s one thing that makes this so sad.
I was on an outing to assess ammunition availability this weekend, and I have noticed that the great ammunition shock of late 2012 and 2013 has been ameliorated. In fact, I have continued to shoot and also continued to purchase, but I haven’t built my stockpile the way I had intended. It’s too easy to become lazy, in part because I can pretty much find what I want now, and for fairly reasonable prices.
But becoming lazy is something we mustn’t do. TTAG mirrors my own fears.
As I said, this was the final lead production facility in the United States. Its location was one of the prime reasons that the Lake City arsenal and other ammunition manufacturers have established themselves nearby, to keep shipping costs down. But with the lead no longer flowing, the next most viable source will be China and require substantially more money to truck overseas for production.
This will also be a big headache for range facilities, since some of them use the reclaimed lead from the dirt berms to pay the bills. There are companies in the United States that will actually pay the range to come in and refurbish their berms, giving them a percentage of the money they make selling the reclaimed lead back to this smelting facility. MCB Quantico operates their ranges this way, closing down once every four years for a re-fit that pays for a lot of the ranges’ services. Now that they will need to ship that lead overseas before it is processed, that will make the whole business more expensive and might drive up range fees.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the price of ammunition jumps as well. Heck, this might even kick off a second ammo shortage if things go badly.
Steel ammunition won’t do. Folks can argue all day long about “soft steel” to replace copper and steel core to replace lead. But the fact that Eastern Bloc ammunition was made that way is why you can pick up some Mosin Nagants and Mosin carbines and drop a round into the end of the barrel and listen as it drops to the chamber without getting caught on any rifling all the way down. Steel wears out rifling and (steel casings instead of brass) ruins the action.
Be diligent and continue to build your armory. I have gotten lazy – a mistake I don’t intend to repeat.