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Push for new US lithium mine leaves some Americans wary

A proposed mining project by Piedmont Lithium in North Carolina is facing opposition from residents including retired county district attorney Locke Bell, pictured, over environmental fears
A proposed mining project by Piedmont Lithium in North Carolina is facing opposition from residents including retired county district attorney Locke Bell, pictured, over environmental fears - Copyright AFP/File TONY KARUMBA
A proposed mining project by Piedmont Lithium in North Carolina is facing opposition from residents including retired county district attorney Locke Bell, pictured, over environmental fears - Copyright AFP/File TONY KARUMBA
Beiyi SEOW

When Kristal Lee and her husband bought a house in Gaston County, North Carolina two years ago, they envisioned a “forever home”. But a planned lithium mine is bringing Lee sleepless nights.

Nearby is an area earmarked for a $1.2 billion project to produce battery grade lithium for US electric vehicle (EV) supply chains — one of only a few such sites in the country.

“You get very anxious when you hear about it,” she said of the project by Piedmont Lithium.

“We don’t really have an option of moving right now, especially with the economy and inflation.”

With President Joe Biden working to build domestic EV and battery industries, companies are seeking supplies in United States — which has major lithium deposits in Nevada, North Carolina and California.

Biden’s aims include furthering the energy transition and lowering dependence on China, which supplies the bulk of global lithium-ion battery exports.

Lithium-ion battery demand is set to grow nearly 30 percent annually from 2022-2030, according to McKinsey & Company.

However, pushback against Piedmont and others underscore how officials’ efforts leave some residents skeptical.

– Balancing act –

Top risks of mining include water pollution and reducing water supplies, said Aimee Boulanger, executive director at the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (IRMA).

“Moving rock to get minerals opens up land and risks the soil and metals normally locked in the earth washing into streams, rivers, and drinking water,” added Boulanger, whose organization certifies mines for major companies.

Lee, 41, has five children and worries about dust and noise from the open pit mine where Piedmont plans to conduct blasting once or twice daily as needed.

The company maintains that this would not cause structural damage nearby.

Her neighbors also fear water contamination or a supply disruption.

Piedmont plans to test and treat water that drains into its pits before using or discharging it.

The company’s back-ups involve potentially drilling new wells, providing access to municipal water supplies, or supplying bottled water — but this has failed to quell jitters.

“We need to work to ensure that (mines) don’t cause harm that outweighs or outlasts” benefits, said Boulanger.

– ‘Get it right’ –

Resident Jim McMahan said the mine life of around a decade is another concern.

“They will provide jobs for a period of time,” the 65-year-old retiree, who has taken up farming, said. But eventually “the jobs will be gone and maybe, the farms will be gone.”

Reducing emissions can be a legitimate argument for developing new industries, notes Locke Bell, 73, a retired county district attorney.

“I want clean air,” he said, “but I don’t want reckless destruction of the earth and the waters to produce a minimal amount of lithium.”

This month, Piedmont Lithium received a North Carolina state mining permit, but it needs further local permissions.

Chad Brown, chair of the Gaston County Board of Commissioners, said: “We have to get it right. They have to make sure they assure us.”

He said a decision could be reached by November.

Lee learned about the mine a year after moving into her current home — when Piedmont mailed the family a gift of coffee and a note.

“I’ve lost enough sleepless nights,” she said.

– Negative view? –

Piedmont’s project is expected to produce 30,000 metric tons of lithium hydroxide annually, “significantly” boosting US capacity.

The world’s top lithium producer Albemarle is also working to reopen a dormant mine in Kings Mountain, North Carolina.

The company said it benefited from policies like the Inflation Reduction Act and received nearly $150 million via a Department of Energy grant to support costs.

Biden has been struggling to win over Americans with his economic policies, despite the surge in investments they have triggered.

In Gaston County, the situation leaves a “negative” view of the government’s clean energy push, Bell said. 

Lee said she supports clean energy but is less convinced of EVs, citing a lack of charging infrastructure and high costs even with tax rebates.

McMahan described the lithium mining process as “invasive.”

“I really do not feel that the push for electric vehicles is something that is being done in the way that it should be done,” he said.

AFP
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With 2,400 staff representing 100 different nationalities, AFP covers the world as a leading global news agency. AFP provides fast, comprehensive and verified coverage of the issues affecting our daily lives.

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