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Community outreach helps Johnson Controls site the first new lead smelting facility in the U.S. in more than 20 years.

Dan Sandoval March 24, 2011

The Jan. 18, 2011, groundbreaking for Johnson Controls’ secondary lead smelter and battery recycling facility in Florence, S.C., may have made the rounds of the local media for a day or so, but the company says the event was the culmination of a community outreach campaign it engaged in for more than a year.

Milwaukee-based Johnson Controls first announced its plan to build a facility to recycle lead acid batteries in 2009. The company says it expects to invest $150 million in the plant, which is slated to open by the middle of 2012. The Florence facility will process 40,000 batteries per day, according to Johnson Controls.

The company says it chose the location because it is near its existing facilities in Oconee County, S.C., and Winston-Salem, N.C. Johnson Controls also operates a distribution facility in Florence.

The company’s success in working with state agencies, environmental groups and residents in getting the OK for the Florence plant is impressive considering that an air permit has not been issued in more than 20 years to a company looking to build a secondary lead smelter in the United States.

Additionally, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently tightened air emissions standards, making it more challenging for such a company to comply. In its application, however, Johnson Controls says its facility will adhere to the EPA’s updated standards for ambient air, which reduced the acceptable concentration of lead by a factor of 10 from 1.5 micrograms per cubic meter of air to 0.15 micrograms per cubic meter. Johnson Controls claims the maximum predicted concentration of lead in the air emitted from its Florence facility will be less than one-half of the newly revised EPA standard.

The facility will include battery breaking, separation, desulfurization of paste, crystallization of sodium sulfate, melting, smelting, refining and casting. The plant’s baghouses will be closed loop, returning collected material to the process, the company says. Each building containing a lead process will be maintained under a negative pressure ventilation system, such that outside air will enter the building and all the air leaving the building will pass through pollution control equipment.

Johnson Controls says it welcomed feedback from various parties such residents, environmental groups and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) in seeking to site its new plant in Florence.

During the groundbreaking ceremony for the facility, Allen Martin, vice president and general manager of Johnson Controls Power Solutions Americas, cited the work that all parties played in getting the smelter built. “The collaboration between the Florence community, organizations and business has been vital to the success of this facility,” Martin said. “Today is particularly rewarding for everyone who has been involved in the process.”

South Carolina Sen. Hugh Leatherman, who also attended the groundbreaking, said, “Johnson Controls continues to be a state leader in job growth and a committed community partner concerned about the environment. I’m proud to have been closely involved in making the Florence Recycling Center a reality and look forward to the future of the facility and our community.”

Florence Mayor Steve Wukela also pointed out the company’s work in the community, saying, “Johnson Controls continues to be a great corporate citizen, particularly through the extensive public process it took in getting this facility off the ground.”

Citizens and groups beyond local politicians welcomed the new facility to town. Nancy Cave, North Coast office director for the Coastal Conservation League (CCL), a South Carolina group that works with communities, businesses and other NGOs to protect the Carolina coast, said, “The collaborative approach Johnson Controls took in working with us really illustrated its commitment to the region and the environment.”

Despite Cave’s positive comments during the groundbreaking, she says the CCL originally challenged Johnson Controls’ permit request for the site. “We asked the board to review the decision and, at that time, we had decided to find a compromise. Johnson Controls was amendable to finding a reasonable solution,” she says.

 “It set an example and a precedent,” Cave says of the process. “They worked with us, rather than against us,” she says of Johnson Controls. “I think everyone had to consider whether to go into litigation that could take years and a lot of money. Johnson Controls stepped up and said, ‘We are willing to sit down and talk.’”

Nancy Whittle, community liaison for the Columbia, S.C.-based South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC), agrees that Johnson Controls worked with the various parties and was transparent in its plans for the site. “They tried to improve the participation and they were more proactive in their approach,” Whittle says.

Johnson Controls established a Citizens’ Advisory Group, which met (and is expected to continue to meet) regularly throughout the permitting process. In addition, the company hosted multiple meetings with various business and community and environmental groups, helping Johnson Controls to win over many of its critics.

Whittle says, “I think that this notion of getting out in front of people is a great idea. Johnson Controls has done a great job of working with the community. It is important to listen to the concerns of the people.”

Fred Carter, president of Francis Marion University in Florence, chairs the Citizens’ Advisory Group. In a press release issued by Johnson Controls, he states, “I have been very impressed by Johnson Controls’ level of interest in being open and collaborative throughout this process. Johnson Controls’ further expansion here will be of great benefit to our state.”

Timothy Lafond, director of environmental engineering for Johnson Controls, acts as the point man for the company’s community outreach. “Working with the residents and environmental groups, who also are stakeholders, would be an important issue,” he says of the process to site the new lead smelting facility. “We needed to understand each of the stakeholders. We gave them a seat at the table.” Lafond adds, “We met with the environmental groups the day we announced the project. We hoped that they would partner with us.”

Lafond offers many instances where Johnson Controls acted on the issues and concerns of local citizens. For instance, while federal regulations mandate the use of an air monitor, citizens and environmental groups expressed concern that more air monitors were needed. As a result, Johnson Controls added two additional air monitors.

Another concern for some residents and environmental groups was the potential impact of the smelter on the Pee Dee River. Lafond says Johnson Controls did not want to negatively affect the resource and, therefore, designed the site to avoid discharging into the river. “We developed an innovative stormwater management system to avoid that problem,” he says.

Stormwater discharge at the site must be permitted under the South Carolina DHEC National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System General Permit. The rules require companies to prepare a stormwater pollution prevention plan describing the measures to be taken at the facility to minimize pollutants in stormwater. Lafond says the plant will take additional steps to reduce stormwater exposure, including:

  • Storing used batteries in an enclosed warehouse prior to recycling.
  • Covering the area where used batteries will be transferred to the recycling area.
  • Manufacturing operations will occur indoors.
  • Capturing and managing rain runoff from buildings and parking lots to minimize their effect on the surrounding area.
  • Creating wastewater and stormwater treatment systems that will protect the environment.

Johnson Controls says it will not discharge water directly to surface water. Instead, the company will recycle and re-use water in its smelting process whenever possible. However, some wastewater will have to be further treated. The company says its pretreatment process will remove pollutants prior to sending wastewater off site. Wastewater will be combined with sanitary wastewater from the company’s offices and piped to the city’s wastewater treatment plant where it will be treated  further.
Local residents already had expressed concern with the number of large trucks delivering logs to a nearby paper mill. Adding more trucks to the mix when the smelter opened, these critics felt, would make a bad situation worse.

 “We recognized the speed of the trucks would be a concern for the residents as well as our employees,” Laford says. “We told them we would request a traffic light and speed bumps. We wanted to show residents that we were on their side of the issue. We became an ally of the group.”

To further improve its standing in the community and boost its environmental footprint, Johnson Controls proposed a number of additional environmental initiatives, including:

  • Protecting sensitive habitats.
  • Managing wildlife habitats.
  • Participating in the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources Stewardship Program.

The company also is seeking Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification for its facility. Johnson Controls says it will incorporate energy efficiency into building design and operation and plans to investigate a range of features, such as geothermal heating and cooling, green roofing, water re-use and recycling and natural lighting.

 “The final agreement will further mitigate emissions, providing additional safeguards to the community and the environment,” Cave says of the compromises Johnson Controls agreed to. “The outcome is the result of a successful working relationship for the good of the community.”

Lafond says Johnson Controls plans to keep the dialog with Florence residents going and to remain transparent in its operations. “We will absolutely keep the dialog with environmental groups going. We will bring them into our operations,” Lafond adds.

Dan Sandoval is senior and Internet editor of Recycling Today and can be contacted at dsandoval@gie.net.


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