Application for Tantalum metal production plant raising some concerns

MOUND HOUSE -- A metal-processing plant being proposed here, which would be one of only three of its kind in the nation, is raising concerns that officials don't know enough about the unusual industry to properly evaluate it.

Pacific Metals Ores & Chemicals/Niotan Inc. is applying for a special-use permit to produce tantalum powder for use in making capacitors for cell phones and other high-end electronic devices.

The plant would be located in an existing 84,000-square-foot building in the Comstock Industrial Park.

Rick and Rhonda Northcutt, who live north of the proposed facility, want assurances the chemicals used in the process will not pose a health and safety threat. They claim recommendations of approval in January by the Mound House Advisory Council and Lyon County Planning Commission were made without sufficient information.

"Some of the hazardous chemicals they will use cannot have water on them, as that would cause an explosion. They will be storing the most hazardous chemical in the east part of the building, less than 200 feet from our watchman's quarters," Rhonda Northcutt said. "They said the worst-case scenario would be an explosion that would have the roof and walls flying. Do we really want something like this in our community?"

The Northcutts own Innovative Rod Products and live in the watchman's quarters on their industrially-zoned property.

During the January planning meeting, Central Lyon County Fire District Fire Prevention Officer Mary Ellen Holley cited a lack of sufficient information on the application and made no recommendation.

"We wanted to be better educated first, before making a recommendation. We did not know the quantities of the acids, salts and flammable materials they will be using. We just did not have enough information on the process at that time to say whether we are in favor or opposed to it," she said last week.

Since that time, however, fire department officials met with representatives from Niotan Inc., the State Fire Marshals Office, the county building department and the builder, Miles Brothers Construction. The Northcutts and other members of the community also attended the meeting.

Fire District Chief John Gillenwater said he is satisfied with the application at this point in the process.

"We wanted to hold the meeting to clear up any confusion. This way we could get questions answered. Everyone now has a better understanding of what is being done," he said. "We are only in the special use permit stage, but it appears we won't have anything negative at this point."

The Northcutts, however, remain concerned with the potential for hazardous spills, the proposed use of up to 50,000 gallons of water per month and the lack of health and safety records of similar operations.

"Why can't we find out more history on this type of operation? Can our volunteer fire department respond adequately to an emergency in the proper time? I am still concerned with the acids being used in the process," Rick Northcutt said.

Mound House Advisory Council Chairman Chuck Roberts is also concerned with the apparent lack of information and wonders if the county has anyone available who knows enough to properly assess the process.

"I just don't have enough information to form an opinion, pro or con, but it appears it may be a complex issue. I don't see how a thorough review can be done by the county in just one or two short meetings," Roberts said.

Niotan will go before the Lyon County Commissioners for final approval Feb. 7.

Niotan will produce tantalum powder from a tantalum salt, using a sodium reduction process followed by washing procedures using water and acids, followed by a heat treatment requiring a monthly use of approximately 70,000 cubic feet of natural gas. Solid and liquid waste materials will be stored for recycling or disposal in a closed loop system that it says will not adversely affect the environment. The tantalum salt will be delivered to the plant and Niotan will not be involved in ore processing.

Two sediment evaporation ponds will be built at the site, recovering 100 percent of the contained chemicals as solid crystals for reuse in the process and for sale as technical grade chemicals.

Following the meeting with Niotan, Holley said she was under the impression it would be the only such plant in the United States; however, the Nevada Appeal found similar production facilities are located in Newton, Mass. (H.C. Stark Company, a division of Bayer Corporation) and Boyertown, Pa., (Cabot Performance Materials).

Carlos Rerad, plant manager for the Niotan project, said the process to be used at the proposed Mound House facility of reducing the tantalum salt to tantalum powder is essentially the same as is being used by the other two companies.

Niotan will initially hire 62 employees. Future expansion plans include production of wire and tube and would require an additional 30 employees. If permits are approved, Niotan expects to be in operation by the end of the year.

Demand for tantalum powder has been growing steadily since 1992, due mainly to the increase in applications of tantalum capacitors in the electronic industry, chiefly in personal computers and telecommunications. All tantalum for processing must be imported. Domestic resources are of too low a grade to make mining tantalum in the United States feasible.


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