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The company that is building a first-of-its-kind lead recycling plant in the Reno area is revising its permit application after it initially indicated a high amount of lead emissions.
Aqua Metals’ original permit application submitted in November for its electrochemical lead battery recycling plant at the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center indicated estimated annual lead dust emissions of 1.1 tons. The revised permit now shows a significant reduction in total lead dust emissions at just a pound per year.
The Reno Gazette-Journal first contacted Oakland-based Aqua Metals on Feb. 2 about the lead emissions in the original permit. The 1.1 tons equate to about 2,200 pounds, which would be high for a plant that was being touted as a more environmentally friendly alternative to traditional smelters. A traditional smelter operating at 80 metric tons per day, for example, typically produces 1,000 pounds or more of lead emissions annually.
Steve Cotton, Aqua Metals chief commercial officer, described the initial lead emissions estimate as an honest mistake when reached by phone on Feb. 3.
“It’s a mathematical error,” Cotton said. “Our final document is going to be one pound, which is 10,000 times less than a global smelter.”Aqua Metals submitted a revised permit to the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection’s Air Pollution Control Bureau on Feb. 4.
The first facility of its kind in the world, the Aqua Metals lead recycling plant at TRIC in Storey County uses an electrochemical-based technology it calls “AquaRefining,” which the company says produces better and higher yields while reducing toxic waste. Construction of the plant started in August 2015. Aqua Metals plans to initially produce about 80 tons of recycled lead per day, ramping to about 160 tons by 2018.
The project has received plenty of support from economic development circles as well as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which gave the company a 90 percent guarantee on a $10 million loan with Green Bank.
Not everyone, however, is sold on Aqua Metals. Perry Gottesfield, executive director of San Francisco-based nonprofit Occupational Knowledge International, questions why the company is not conforming to the National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants or NESHAP standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Although the company uses a wet chemical process during its recycling unlike other recyclers, a lot of the steps are still similar to what a secondary lead smelter does, Gottesfield said.
“It looks like a (lead smelter), sounds like one, walks like one and talks like one,” Gottesfield said. “They’re a secondary lead smelter but they’re saying ‘No, we’re not’ and trying to weasel their way out of NESHAP requirements.”
Cotton, however, strongly pushed back on the claim that it’s a secondary smelter or that Aqua Metals new facility should be subject to NESHAP.
“NESHAP regulations are for battery manufacturers, which we’re not, and smelters, which we’re not,” Cotton said. “The analogy here is that you need a pilot’s license to drive a motor vehicle, which doesn’t make sense.”
Although the revised permit is an improvement over the original, Gottesfield says it still falls short in several areas. The revised application still has no provisions for a monitoring plan for meeting ambient air standards or capturing gases or vapors leaked by pressurized equipment, known as “fugitive” emissions, Gottesfield said.
Gottesfield also questioned why construction is already ongoing at the site even though the Bureau of Air Pollution Control has yet to approve its air quality operating permit. Gottesfield says he understands that speed of development is a big part of the allure of the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center.
“Fast tracking construction might be great for a warehouse but this is a totally different animal,” Gottesfield said. “The company is simply asking that we believe them despite the huge disparity in air emissions estimates that they have put forward.”
Cotton, however, says that changes to applications are normal. Revising and recalculating is part of the nature of the permitting process and the company “absolutely” has all the appropriate permitting required for the construction phases that the site has undergone so far, Cotton said.
“Our AquaRefining process is designed to mitigate the environmental impact of lead recycling,” Cotton said. “(Occupational Knowledge International) should be focused on other areas and not a company that’s actually trying to solve the problem.”
The Bureau of Air Pollution Control recently finished accepting public comment for the Aqua Metals project earlier this month. The bureau is developing an emission inventory for the project, which is an accounting of all pollutants it will be releasing into the air.
“We’re evaluating the emissions they are proposing and creating our own emission inventory … and comparing that to any federal standards that they are subject to,” said Jeff Kinder, Air Pollution Control bureau chief. “We’re far, far away from issuing a permit.”
The Environmental Protection Agency, meanwhile, says it is aware that Aqua Metals is proposing a new technology for lead-acid battery recycling. The agency does not know yet if NESHAP standards should apply to the plant but will continue to monitor the situation.
“Our initial review of the information provided indicates this could be a promising alternative for this industry,” said Margot Perez-Sullivan, EPA spokeswoman for Nevada and Arizona. “We will continue to work with NDEP to provide them any assistance they may need as they review the application and determine the necessary requirements, including whether the NESHAP applies to this proposed source.”