Port Pirie’s lead smelter is considering restarting the high-polluting sinter plant because of the unexpected shutdown of its modern Top Submerged Lance (TSL) furnace.
- Operations at Port Pirie lead smelter have ground to a halt as the new $650-million low-polluting TSL furnace was shutdown following an accident
- Repairs expected to take a number of weeks and plant operator Nyrstar is therefore considering reopening the old, high-polluting sinter plant
- There is some community concern about lead pollution if this was to happen, and the company will require EPA approval to do so
In 2014, the site underwent a $650-million transformation, of which the former state government underwrote $291 million, so the plant could become economical, modern and less polluting.
This involved replacing the sinter plant, known for producing high lead-in-air emissions, with the TSL technology.
Plant operator Nyrstar said earlier this month an accident caused the shutdown of the new furnace.
Trafigura took over the Port Pirie smelter from Nyrstar this year. (Supplied: Come See Change)
“An incident occurred with the hearth in the primary smelter, which has resulted in a forced shutdown because of a partial failure of the hearth,” a spokesperson said in a statement.
There were no injuries and repairs are being undertaken.
“Repairs will result in the TSL being down for a number of weeks and a number of options are being considered, including a restart of the sinter plant, to maintain production,” the company said.
“The cause of the failure is continuing to be investigated and further information will be communicated when details become available.”
Restarting the sinter plant
Trafigura, which took over Nyrstar’s global operations in early August, is hoping to restart the sinter plant to continue production, which has stopped.
Keith Baldry, the director of science and information at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), said Trafigura would need its approval.
“We will be discussing the details of what that involves how they’re going to manage to restart, the length of time and what’s involved,” he said.
“The sinter plant is a legacy piece of plant, so the emissions control is going to be a lot more difficult than with the new plant.
“There’s going be a lot of work required to understand how they’ll respond to any elevated emissions, the controls they’ll put in place and how they’ll manage the impact on other parts of the plant.”
Some locals are concerned about the lead-in-air levels, which will significantly increase if the sinter plant goes online.
However, Independent Member for Frome, Geoff Brock, said, “there’s nobody who’s been poisoned by lead”.
Mr Brock said it was imperative the plant starts producing again and that challenges such as the TSL shutdown should be expected when switching from old to new technology.
“We need to get the technology correct and the new plant up and running,” he said.
“In the meantime, there is no production there so, from Trafigura’s point of view, there’s no money coming in and there’s no sales being made to fulfil the contracts.”
Mr Brock said he believed the workers would act responsibly and comply with the EPA.
“These people have families in this community: they have their own children, they have grandchildren and therefore they will take every responsibility,” he said.
“We need to get that plant up and running to be able to make security and wellbeing and the jobs for our future generations.”
The Port Pirie smelter has been operating for more than 100 years. (ABC News: Gary-Jon Lysaght)
Health impacts of lead
High lead-in-blood levels affect children and pregnant women the most.
Professor Mark Taylor from Macquarie University said restarting the sinter plant would be bad for the town.
“The issue with the old plant is that it’s not very efficient and a lot of particulates come up through the smelter and are then distributed across town,” he said.
“We know it’s been quite bad, on and off, since 2014.
“We know children’s blood is elevated — more than 50 per cent of children have a level which exceeds the national intervention value of five micrograms per decilitre.
“It’s probably not going to be a good outcome for the community given the recent levels of lead in the air and the elevated blood lead in the community and the damage we know that can do to children long-term.”
The redevelopment of the Port Pirie smelter costed more than $650 million. (ABC News: Glen Moret)
A string of problems
The TSL furnace shutdown is just one of many issues that have plagued the smelters recently.
In May, there was a steam eruption in the blast furnace, followed by a gas duct failure in the TSL furnace in June.
The plant shut down for the month of June and there was no production until July.
After the plant became operational in July, the TSL was damaged, causing the current cease in production.