Avoiding Fines And Legal Fees When Reclaiming Precious Metals

June 4, 2002

Avoiding fines and legal fees...-sabin metal corporationChoose the right refiner to deal with spent fixed-bed catalysts

By Richard Carranza, Technical Editor —Sabin Metal Corp., East Hampton, NY.

Recovering precious metals from spent catalysts makes good business sense,
and choosing the right refiner can help protect a company from environmental liability.

Industry uses precious metal catalysts in hundreds of ways. In fact, virtually every chemical or petrochemical manufacturer uses fixed-bed reaction catalysts to produce products. Most—if not all—depend on precious metals refiners to reclaim gold, silver, platinum, palladium, rhodium, ruthenium and other valuable metals from spent catalysts. Refiners also recover precious metals from waste by-products like filter cakes, papers, cloths, polishing filters, floor sweepings and protective clothing.

Yet many companies may not know the legal implications of recovery. Picking the wrong refiner can be a costly mistake, but some organizations, like Bristol-Myers Squibb, have successfully addressed the problem.

Bristol-Myers Squibb, a world leader in the development and production of pharmaceuticals, uses chemical catalysts in many manufacturing processes. One company plant in Syracuse, NY, uses 4% palladium on carbon catalysts in a hydrogenation reaction—the production of a fermentation-based penicillin product. That generates spent palladium carbon cake, which is forwarded for recovery to a precious metal refiner in Scottsville, NY, near Rochester. After the residual palladium is extracted from the carbon cake, it is transferred to a catalyst manufacturer for fabrication into new catalysts.

Boosting profits through recovery of precious metals is not Bristol-Myers Squibb’s primary concern. Because companies are keenly aware of the environmental issues involved in reclamation, Bristol-Myers Squibb demands that vendors comply with EPA guidelines and regulations.

That’s why Bristol-Myers Squibb chose a precious metals refiner that operates a “zero-discharge” plant. No effluent is emitted before, during or after refining. Air quality is controlled with advanced pollution control systems, which filter 555,000 cu. ft. of air per min. Process water (the most common source of pollution) evaporates, and residues are reprocessed. Material leaving the plant is limited to refined precious metals and a glass-like borate slag. By using a “zero-discharge” refiner, Bristol-Myers Squibb minimizes environmental liability.

Additional catalyst materials could come into play with new production procedures, said Patrick Smith of Bristol-Myers Squibb. “Speaking for the Syracuse site,” Smith said, “we do have a development facility here as well as manufacturing, and they may occasionally use rhodium– or ruthenium-based catalyst; although Bristol-Myers Squibb has the opportunity to use any catalyst as new products enter the pipeline.” Recovery procedures—and therefore environmental concerns—would be similar for other precious metals used as catalysts, he added.

The precious metals refining industry does not enjoy a sterling reputation for environmental responsibility. When selecting refiners, find out how they process materials and what they do for other customers. Determine how each refiner handles solid, liquid or gaseous by-product.

Ask for documentation that ensures the refiners do not violate environmental laws or regulations. CERCLA (Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act), also known as the Superfund Act, addresses joint customer-refiner responsibility. The law mandates that the company, the source of the material for precious metal recovery, and the precious metal refiner share “cradle to grave” responsibility for safe handling of the material.

That legal obligation extends into the future. Essentially, refiners have to protect the environment to avoid serious financial and legal consequences. If a refiner violates laws or regulations, the plant that used the metal catalyst could wind up paying heavy fines and legal costs.

To determine if refiners meet the criteria, look for effective use of sophisticated technology, such as afterburners, baghouses, wet scrubbers and liquid effluent neutralizing equipment. Also, evaluate the refiners’ approval status with local, state and federal agencies. Precious metal refiners should be willing to furnish copies of all required documentation. Those include permits under the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act and proof the company qualifies as a bona fide precious metals refiner, as specified in the preamble to the BIF (Boiler and Industrial Furnace) rule and its amendments.

Set the goal of finding “zero-discharge” refiners—ones that do not produce effluent or hazardous waste by-products.

Look for precious metals refiners who use state-of-the-art techniques and have the equipment to measure metal content before reclamation. Check for a long track record and a good reputation. Get the names of the refiners’ customers and ask for references. And find out if the refiners have the resources to pay in a timely manner.

Evaluate the refiners’ processing methods. To ensure maximum “yield,” find refiners who maintain a modern, well-equipped analytical laboratory.

The ideal refiner would use classic volumetric, gravimetric and fire-assay techniques, advanced X-ray fluorescence equipment, atomic absorption and ICP emission spectroscopy. Those techniques have been approved by the American Bureau of Standards and by the NYMEX/COMEX precious metals exchanges. When used together, they provide the most exacting method for determining precious metals content in spent materials, thus assuring the highest possible returns.

Choose refiners with significant in-house capability and little need to rely on subcontractors. The more it costs refiners to process the materials, the less the overall return. Depending on the specific precious metal to be reclaimed, refiners generally use a combination of pyro-metallurgical and hydrometallurgical processes to achieve the highest metal recovery at the lowest cost.

Most refiners use a variety of equipment and procedures to process spent catalysts. They include rotary and crucible furnaces, kilns, roasters, thermal processors, pulverizers, granulators, screens, blenders, auto-samplers, reactors, dissolvers, precipitators, electrolytic cells and filter presses. In many cases, how the equipment is employed can change the percentage of precious metals recovered from spent catalysts and also affects refiners’ discharge policies. Do not hesitate to ask questions.

To cultivate trust, refiners should provide detailed weight and analysis reports for shipments. The most advanced laboratories typically assay sample materials in triplicate to ensure precise precious metals measurements. Reputable refiners allow inspection during the sampling of materials and will permit clients an independent analysis. Ask questions before selecting refiners to reduce the likelihood of problems. And remember, catalyst users form partnerships with precious metals refiners—at least that is how EPA sees it.