David Boraks |
WFAE-FMThursday, December 8, 2022
The U.S. wants to mine more domestic lithium for electric vehicle batteries. It would require demolishing houses, digging up farms and disrupting streams. Some residents worry about the impact.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
The U.S. has been pushing to mine more lithium for electric vehicle batteries. But there's a tradeoff, as residents have learned near Charlotte, N.C., where a big, open-pit mine has been proposed. Here's David Boraks of WFAE.
DAVID BORAKS, BYLINE: A company called Piedmont Lithium wants to build a mine and processing operation about 30 miles west of Charlotte. Geologist Emily Winter leads the way to a large rock outcrop.
EMILY WINTER: So within this rock, it contains spodumene, the mineral. And within that mineral spodumene contains lithium that we can convert to lithium hydroxide that then goes into batteries.
BORAKS: Lithium deposits run through this region in a mile-wide band. For decades, mines here supplied most of the world's lithium until cheaper sources were found in South America and Australia. Now the element is in high demand for electric vehicle batteries, says CEO Keith Phillips.
KEITH PHILLIPS: There is very little production of the lithium raw materials or any battery raw materials in the U.S. The potential's there, but it'll take time to bring it online.
BORAKS: When Piedmont Lithium dedicated its new headquarters this summer, U.S. Senator Thom Tillis was there. The North Carolina Republican says in this scratchy recording that domestic sources of lithium are needed to counter China.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
THOM TILLIS: They intend to make sure that the Western world is dependent upon them for lithium, for rare earth minerals, so that they can literally beat us by never firing a shot.
BORAKS: Tillis says he supports Piedmont Lithium's new mine as long as it's done in an environmentally responsible way. But that's the catch. Piedmont's plans call for four open-pit mines 500 feet deep. That means demolishing houses, digging up farm fields and woods and disrupting streams. Some neighbors have sold their land to the mine. But others whose land borders the site are not happy. Locke Bell is a former district attorney who says Piedmont approached him about mining on his land five years ago. He declined after seeing detailed plans.
LOCKE BELL: And suddenly, I saw these massive mines, open pits. Yeah. And we have enough of that around here that's toxic already.
BORAKS: He's talking about old lithium mines nearby that closed in the 1980s and '90s and are now contaminated with arsenic, which occurs naturally in the area's soil and rocks. A few miles away, Warren Snowden has similar concerns.
WARREN SNOWDEN: Our issue is on every front. It's water. It's air. It's light pollution. It's noise. It's traffic. Give us a solar farm. Give us a wind farm.
BORAKS: Piedmont Lithium still needs key approvals, including state air and mining permits. And there's local political opposition. Chad Brown is chair of the Gaston County Commission, which will have to approve a rezoning for the mine.
CHAD BROWN: With the information I have right now, I probably would not call for a vote on this. I would have to have tons of more information just for the environmental side and as far as air quality, water quality.
BORAKS: The commission updated its zoning rules last year to limit blasting and truck traffic, says Brown. But he's not sure Piedmont will be able to get the electricity and water it needs for mining and processing.
Do you see this project actually happening?
BROWN: Well, I think right now, you're still at 50-50 just for the simple fact of it's a long way out.
BORAKS: Still, CEO Keith Phillips is optimistic.
PHILLIPS: So the permitting process is more involved. And it will take longer. And our plan and our hope is that we'll be in production in Carolina in 2026.
BORAKS: While Piedmont Lithium pursues that goal, the company has a backup plan. It's building a processing plant in Tennessee with help from a federal grant. And it's counting on mines in Quebec and Ghana to supply lithium.
For NPR News, I'm David Boraks in Gaston County, N.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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