Huge kiln, part of $350 million modernization, arrives in Gum Springs

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 2,244 views 

A 170-ton kiln completed its journey across the Atlantic Ocean and 168 miles of Arkansas’ roads, finally landing Monday (May 15) at a hazardous waste facility at Gum Springs outside of Arkadelphia.

Fifty-nine feet long and 16 feet in diameter, the kiln is the centerpiece of a $350 million modernization project at what originally was a Reynolds aluminum smelter built in 1952.

Britt Scheer, director of facilities affairs, said French-owned Veolia purchased the entire site from Alcoa in 2020 for $250 million. Alcoa had acquired the plant when it bought Reynolds in 2000. The plant was treating spent potliner, a byproduct of aluminum manufacturing.

At the moment, spent potliner still represents half the plant’s business, but that is declining as less aluminum is produced in North America, Scheer said.

The kiln, capable of reaching 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit, will probably be the hottest-burning large-capacity furnace in North America and will be the biggest. The heat breaks down chemicals into their basic elements, like carbon and nitrogen. If there are solids left over in the ash, they will be stabilized and then buried in a landfill. The kiln will be at a slightly declined angle and will do one rotation per minute in order to mix the waste. A separate, secondary combustion chamber will complete the process.

The kiln will enable the 1,600-acre site to incinerate more hazardous and other types of waste, including petroleum tank cleanups, than the current two 1,700-degree incinerators located at the facility, Scheer said. The two incinerators will be shut down and replaced.

The kiln will probably start operation at the end of 2024. Three hundred construction workers are on site seven days a week working on the modernization.

The number of employees working at the facility has gone from 61 employees when Veolia purchased it in 2020 to what Scheer estimated was 132 now. The headcount could reach 225 by the time the plant is operating at full capacity in early 2026. The starting wage is $23 an hour.

“I think a number that’s probably safe is we’ll have probably a billion dollar capital impact over 10 years,” Scheer said. “That’s in purchasing equipment; that’s hiring people, that’s purchasing consumables and everything else.”

Operations and maintenance employees are members of the United Steelworkers. The company is in the middle of negotiations as it switches from Alcoa to Veolia contracts.

Veolia has received no state aid so far for the project because it’s not manufacturing anything, Scheer said, but it should qualify for training incentives from the state and from Clark County.

The waste incinerated by the facility ranges from the hazardous to the everyday. Probably the most dangerous is out-of-date chemotherapy drugs. But that morning, plant employees had discussed how the feeder system was getting plugged up by expired vitamin gummies that arrive in truckloads.

The plant also incinerates expired antacids, shampoo, perfumes, adhesive bandages and other products. It does not incinerate explosives, radioactive waste or infectious medical waste. As far as Scheer knows, it has never had an industrial illness from exposure.

The facility does produce carbon dioxide and a small amount of nitrous oxide, along with water vapor. It will attempt to capture the CO2 on the new kiln. It is working with a couple of companies that would use the CO2 in their chemical processes. Federal dollars may be available through the Inflation Reduction Act passed last year.

The steam generated by the kiln will generate half the power needed to operate the plant. A 35-acre on-site solar farm will generate the other half, enabling the plant to achieve net zero energy.

The kiln is the fifth purchased by Veolia from FEMA, an Italian company. Its travel across the Atlantic Ocean and meandering 168-mile journey across south Arkansas May 10-15 became a source of growing interest, fueled in part by online updates from the Arkansas Department of Transportation, or ARDOT.

The kiln and its truck and trailer combination weighed 300 tons total and stood 21 feet tall and 20 feet wide. It was transported on a trailer powered by a pull truck in front and a push truck in back. Ellen Coulter, ARDOT deputy public information officer, said the combination was 220 feet long, three times the length of an average tractor-trailer combination and about twice as wide.

Memphis-based Barnhart Crane and Rigging was selected to do the transport. Tim Fielder, project sales manager, said ARDOT first had to find a dimensional route with no bridges the kiln couldn’t get under and no turns it couldn’t navigate.

The best route saw the kiln traveling by barge from New Orleans up the Mississippi River and then the Ouachita River, landing in Crossett, and then traveling across south Arkansas to Strong, El Dorado, Camden, Stephens, Prescott, Gurdon and then finally to Gum Springs. Landing at the Port of Little Rock wouldn’t work because there were too many overhead obstructions, while the Port of Pine Bluff is designed for agriculture and bulk materials.

Once ARDOT had found a few dimensional routes, it had to ensure bridges could handle the load. The combination weighed 600,000 pounds, compared to the typical maximum allowable weight for diesel semi trucks and trailers of 80,000. The company had to obtain a permit from ARDOT based on its configuration that would spread the weight across 24 axles on the trailer. Sets of axles in front and back sometimes were controlled remotely by employees walking alongside in order to navigate various turns, including the one leading into the plant.

“Even though the thing is 600,000 gross weight, it has so many axles, and the axles are spread out, that it really puts … no more pressure on the infrastructure than what like a normal concrete truck would or dump truck or tractor trailer,” Fielder said.

Eleven bucket trucks traveled with the kiln on Saturday and Sunday and nine on the other days to push up or bring down power lines. Transport planners also had to work with the Union Pacific railroad.

The procession’s speeds ranged from 5 to 35 miles per hour. To help with traffic, the kiln was accompanied by six Arkansas Highway Police patrolmen along with Captain Ross Batson, commander of the Arkansas Highway Police Oversize and Overweight Permits section.

Batson said the company paid $6,600 for two five-day overweight permits, as would normally be the case, but wasn’t charged for any other transport expenses the state incurred.

This was the tallest and the widest load Batson could recall permitting, but not the heaviest. A 990,000-pound electrical transformer was transported through Northwest Arkansas.

He said the kiln attracted a lot of interest along the route. People watched and took pictures. He estimated 300-400 people were watching in Prescott, where the kiln passed through on Sunday and people were lining the streets and sitting in lawn chairs.