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Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Rainbow at the Recycling Pot of Gold . . . er, Steel

The Rainbow at the Recycling Pot of Gold . . . er, Steel – and NORM removal will make it a larger one!

Steel recycling is big business, and it's only going to get bigger over time. One of the easiest materials to obtain and recycle is steel pipe, and the petroleum industry buys and uses the majority of the steel that is produced and imported into the United States. It's cheap, it's convenient - and, occasionally, it's deadly.

Naturally occurring radioactive materials (NORM) sometimes accumulate both inside and outside pieces of equipment associated with oil and gas production and processing activities. Typically, the NORM accumulates when radium that is present in solution in produced water precipitates out in scale and sludge deposits. Scrap equipment containing residual quantities of these NORM-bearing scales and sludges can present a waste management problem if the radium concentrations exceed regulatory limits or activate the alarms on radiation screening devices installed at most scrap metal recycling facilities. Although NORM-contaminated scrap metal currently is not disposed of by re-melting, this form of recycling could present a viable disposition option for this waste stream.

Scrap metal recycling is an important industry in the United States, providing a significant portion of supply of all types of metal. While domestic steel consumption has declined over the last two decades, the scrap metal share of the iron and steel market has increased. In 1997, scrap metal processors handled about 66 million to 70 million metric tons of scrap iron and steel, of which approximately 46% was comprised of obsolete scrap (i.e., worn out, broken and discarded objects). Recycled ferrous scrap made up approximately 72°/0 of the country's raw steel production in 1997, up from around 33% in 1980. The international market for scrap metal recycling also is significant, with industrialized nations exporting scrap metal to developing nations as demand and business conditions dictate. In 1997, the U.S. exported approximately 8.9 million metric tons of ferrous scrap, having an estimated value of about $1.3 billion.

These statistics reflect the fact that iron and steel scrap are vital raw materials for the production of new steel and cast iron products. Scrap metal recycling has become more and more important for several reasons. From an environmental perspective, recycling of scrap metal has become important because re-melting scrap a) requires much less energy than the production of iron or steel products from iron ore; b) significantly reduces the burden on landfill disposal facilities; c) prevents the accumulation of abandoned steel products in the environment (which is a good thing), and d) avoids environmental damage resulting from replacement of the scrap metal through raw material production. Because recycling scrap reduces the need to mine and process raw iron ore, health risks associated with mining and refining the metal (i.e., occupational injuries) are also significantly reduced. From a technological perspective, recycling of scrap metal has become more significant with the proliferation of electric arc furnaces (EAFs), particularly through growth of the "mini-mills" that target specific markets, such as the exotic metals market. EAFs use nearly 100% scrap iron and steel for the furnace charge, as opposed to the basic oxygen furnaces, which use approximately 30% scrap, and open-hearth furnaces, which use around 50% scrap. In the first half of 1998, EAFs consumed almost 70% of all recycled ferrous scrap up from only 37% in 1990.

Since then, the industry has only grown larger and more important to the United States. Overall, the scrap industry processes more than 145,000,000 short tons (129,464,286 long tons; 131,541,787 tons) of recyclable material each year into raw material feedstock for industrial manufacturing around the world. The industry contributed $65 billion in 2006 and is one of the few contributing positively to the U.S. balance of trade, exporting $15.7 billion in scrap commodities in 2006. This imbalance of trade has resulted in rising scrap prices during 2007 and 2008 within the United States. Scrap recycling also helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions and conserves energy and natural resources.

For example, scrap recycling diverts 145,000,000 short tons (129,464,286 long tons; 131,541,787 t) of materials away from landfills. Recycled scrap is a raw material feedstock for 2 out of 3 pounds of steel made in the U.S., for 60% of the metals and alloys produced in the U.S., for more than 50% of the U.S. paper industry's needs, and for 33% of U.S. aluminum. Recycled scrap helps keep air and water cleaner by removing potentially hazardous materials and keeping them out of landfills.

Total value of domestic purchases (receipts of ferrous scrap by all domestic consumers from brokers, dealers, and other outside sources) and exports was estimated to be $32.8 billion in 2008, up by about 60% from that of 2007. U.S. apparent steel consumption, an indicator of economic growth, decreased to about 106 million metric tons in 2008. Manufacturers of pig iron, raw steel, and steel castings accounted for about 86% of scrap consumption by the domestic steel industry, using scrap together with pig iron and direct-reduced iron to produce steel products for the appliance, construction, container, machinery, oil and gas, transportation, and various other consumer industries.

Studies indicate that re-melting NORM-contaminated scrap metal is a viable recycling option from a risk-based perspective. Unfortunately, there are lots of economic, regulatory, and policy issues that have caused the recyclers to turn away virtually all radioactive scrap metal. Until these issues can be resolved, re-melting of the petroleum industry's NORM-impacted scrap metal is unlikely to be a widespread practice.

So, how do they get resolved? There are a few technologies out there that are being used at this time, and none of them are very efficient. These techniques also produce additional wastes in the forms of NORM-contaminated water, if the NORM removal is done by hydroblasting, NORM-contaminated sand if the NORM removal is done by sandblasting, or NORM-contaminated ball bearings if that is the method used for removal. Regardless of what method is used, there is going to be some sort of secondary contamination that will have to be remediated. So, is there a good cost-effective solution? And, more importantly, is it a green solution?

The answer to both of those questions, in the state of the removal/remediation industry technology, is, unfortunately, no, not at this time. That's a shame, too, because there is a recycling pot of gold out there in the form of steel drill stem, steel down hole pipe and coiled steel tubing, all of which are unusable in the petroleum and exploration industry due to NORM contamination, and none of which most recyclers can or will touch due to regulatory issues. That's the petroleum industry's dirty little secret: unusable pipe that nobody can or will touch because of the NORM contamination, pipe that could be re-melted and re-used for other purposes, and both the potential and the probability for long-term environmental problems that won't benefit anybody because the NORM-contaminated pipe has to be stored somewhere, and it's usually not stored where the NORM won't just flake off and contaminate the soil underneath it.

BIBLIOGRAPHY
Figures for steel production/use/costs from Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scrap.
Recycling of NORM contaminated tubing and pipe from DOE Document at http://www.osti.gov/bridge/servlets/purl/750558-dnlzWy/webviewable/750558.pdf

{ED NOTE: I wrote this some time ago for a scrap metal recycling magazine, and it's even more true now than it was then! 20K lawsuits already filed, and counting}

Wilma Howe-Bennett is the President/CEO of Ghost Ryder Technologies, Inc., and is learning the scrap metal recycling business from the ground up. She can be reached at cherose228@yahoo.com.

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