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Once-vital materials to disappear

Brian C. Rittmeyer
| Sunday, Jan. 6, 2002

David Taylor (left), manager of the Defense National Stockpile Center, and John Reinders, spokesman for the center, display some fluorspar that is part of the 39,000 tons that are stored at the Jefferson Hills location.

When the Mon-Fayette Expressway opens through Jefferson Hills this spring, ordinary motorists will never use one part of it.

An access road built about a mile and a half south of Route 51 leads to piles of materials that, despite the vegetation growing on them, once were vital to national defense.

The thousands of tons of industrial raw materials stored for more than 50 years in this remote area were set aside as a guarantee that U.S. industry would not have to rely on foreign sources to produce items needed during times of national emergency. But within 20 years, the site in Jefferson Hills and nearly every other stockpile across the country will be gone. The government has declared the material to be excess and the storage sites no longer needed.

Construction of the Mon-Fayette Expressway severed access to the site, which is operated by the Defense National Stockpile Center. The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission bore the $42,000 cost to build the half-mile long access road, said Joe Agnello, a spokesman for the commission.

Operating under the Department of Defense, the Defense National Stockpile Center is an international commodity broker of strategic and critical materials for the federal government. The 65 commodities that have been stored by the center since the 1940s range from feathers to diamonds.

Stockpile Center sales over the past four years have totaled $2.1 billion, with revenues from those sales supporting military operations, reducing the national deficit and funding center operations, said John Reinders, a spokesman for the center.

The site in Jefferson Hills, one of 54 storage sites maintained by the center, was established in 1949 on land leased from the Wheeling & Lake Erie Railway Co. Reinders said the site in Jefferson Hills was chosen because of its access to rail and road transportation as well as its proximity to industrial centers where the materials would most likely be used.

At its highest level, the site stored 1.9 million tons of manganese and 76,000 tons of flourspar, along with 77,000 tons of ferrochromium. Currently, about 39,000 tons of fluorspar and 206,000 tons of manganese remain at the site, Reinders said. Neither fluorspar or manganese was produced domestically in 2000, according to the United States Geological Survey.

Fluorspar is used directly or indirectly to make products such as aluminum, gasoline, insulating foams, refrigerants, steel and uranium fuel. The defense stockpile is the only domestic source of fluorspar, according to the Geological Survey.

Manganese is essential to iron and steel production. Steelmaking accounts for most of the domestic manganese demand, according to the Geological Survey. Products for construction, machinery and transportation are leading end uses of manganese. It also is a key component of widely used aluminum alloys and dry cell batteries. As ore, manganese is used in plant fertilizer, animal feed and colorants for brick.

In 2000, manganese ore was consumed mainly by about 15 firms with plants in the East and Midwest. The manganese stored in Jefferson Hills came from Cuban, Mexican and domestic sources.

At the $79 per ton average price for 2001, the flourspar stockpile is worth about $3 million, according to the Geological Survey. The value of the manganese would vary based on its quality and sale negotiations, but would be valued between $11 million and $22 million.

No materials have been added to the Jefferson Hills site since the 1960s, and the last sale from the site was about four years ago, said David Taylor, facility manager for the stockpile center. But Reinders said activity at the stockpile is likely to increase as the center undertakes selling nearly all of its materials, a process that is not expected to be completed until the 2020.

Reinders said that selling the material more quickly could disrupt the market.

According to Reinders, Congress and the Defense Department have declared 99 percent of the commodities stored by the center excess to defense needs. Congress authorized the sale of this material in the early 1990s.

"Eventually the Defense National Stockpile Center will cease to be," he said.

Because of changes in technology, materials stored by the center are no longer as necessary as they once were, Taylor said . An example is the 4,000 tons of mercury now held by the center.

"There's just not the same demand for mercury in the market anymore," Taylor said. "We're trying to decide what to do with it. The demand is just not there as it used to be."

After the materials are sold, most if not all of the storage locations will be closed or converted to other uses, Reinders said. In Jefferson Hills, the center's lease with the railway company will end after all the material has been shipped.

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