Jeffrey L. Zelms, a dynamic visionary, helped keep the U.S. lead industry alive during the most volatile period in its modern history. As CEO of The Doe Run Company, the world’s largest primary lead producer, he guided the company through the collapse of the lead market in the 1980s, the recession in the 1990s, and long-running congressional action threatening American lead production. An outspoken leader, Zelms challenged traditional perceptions and overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles to ensure lead production remained a viable U.S. industry.
Zelms guided three key developments contributing to the sustainability of Doe Run and the industry: pillar recovery in the company’s underground room-and-pillar mines in Missouri, recycling, and hydrometallurgical processing.
In 1985, the price of refined lead metal reached one of its all-time lows, 19 cents per pound. While other companies closed, Zelms focused on innovation. Doe Run estimated that 30 million tons of Viburnum Trend ore could be recovered from pillars in its mines (a new mine equivalence), but extraction posed safety risks. By implementing extensive testing in remote mine areas, Zelms helped Doe Run achieve safe pillar recovery. By 1991, Doe Run regularly recovered ore from pillars, a first among underground room-and-pillar lead mines. Zelms oversaw complex computer modeling and backfill techniques that continue to ensure crew safety, mine integrity, predictability, and return on investment. By 1999, pillars accounted for 60 percent of Doe Run’s revenue. Meanwhile, Doe Run and its predecessor companies obtained 13 Sentinels of Safety awards under Zelms’s leadership.
Zelms also guided Doe Run into the recycling market. Pursuing technology that out-performed existing environmental standards, Zelms transformed a primary smelter into a secondary producer, and, in 1991, Doe Run became the first U.S. primary lead company with recycling capabilities. The facility nearly tripled initial capacity in 10 years. Zelms’s strategic approach redefined Doe Run as a fully integrated lead life cycle manager, enabling it to weather market swings. Secondary smelting now accounts for 91 percent of lead metal produced in the U.S. Zelms’s vision also encompassed research and development. Alongside Italian research partner Engitec, Zelms earmarked several million dollars to prove hydrometallurgy could recover lead from Doe Run’s high-grade concentrate. The innovation eliminated emissions associated with smelting and poised Doe Run to revolutionize the lead industry.
Zelms served in leadership roles for the National Mining Association, Minerals Information Institute, American Mining Congress, and AIME. As Chairman of the Lead Industries Association, he strived to overcome public fears relating to lead and urged industry colleagues to do the same. These efforts helped defeat several Lead Exposure Reduction Acts, threatening lead’s use in modern applications. In 1992, Mining World News recognized Zelms as Man of the Year. Throughout his career, Zelms vowed to make tomorrow better than today. The vision and perseverance of this charismatic, approachable, and outspoken man of the people kept the vital American lead industry alive and led to industry advancements the world over.