A company’s plan to enter the fast-growing global market for lithium faces local fears that a proposed new mine in Gaston County will hurt residents’ health, environment and quality of life.
As Keith Phillips, CEO of the mining company Piedmont Lithium, prepares to meet with county commissioners for the first time on Tuesday evening, here’s what you should know about lithium and the mine proposal:
What is lithium?
Lithium is a key component of batteries used in electric cars, bikes, wheelchairs, scooters and personal electronic devices. The global lithium-ion battery market was projected to more than triple over eight years, from $36.7 billion in 2019 to $129.3 billion in 2027, according to a study published by market research firm Valuates Reports.
Piedmont hopes to extract 278,000 tons of lithium-rich ores each year from its Gaston County properties, located south of Hephzibah Church Road east of Cherryville, about 40 miles northwest of Charlotte, the Gaston Gazette reported. The company would also mine several hundred thousands of tons of other valuable minerals, including quartz, feldspar and mica.
These operations would employ about 500 people, the company estimates.
Why Gaston County?
The Charlotte area once led the world in lithium exports.
Stretching from near Gaffney, S.C., to southwest of Hickory, the Carolina Tin-Spodumene Belt provided most of the western world’s lithium from the 1950s to the 1980s, according to Piedmont Lithium’s 2020 annual report. Producers then turned to cheaper deposits in South America and Australia, the Observer previously reported.
Charlotte-based Albemarle Corp. is the world’s largest producer of lithium for electric vehicle batteries, according to Reuters. Philadelphia-based Livent also has a Charlotte office and still processes lithium in the area.
Why are some people concerned?
A Change.org petition called “Stop Piedmont Lithium” has received over 1,600 signatures.
The petition argues that the proposed mine threatens water quality in wells, streams and reservoirs in the nearby Gaston County towns of Dallas and Belmont. Toxic chemical leaks from lithium mines have been known to kill fish and livestock en masse in China, Wired magazine reported.
The petition also raises concerns about the amount of dust, noise and light pollution the mine would likely cause, as well as the potential for blasting to threaten the structural integrity of local homes and businesses.
Petition organizer Will Baldwin has called for residents to protest at the scheduled commissioners meeting on Tuesday evening.
Piedmont has purchased dozens of homes currently located in its proposed mining area, Spectrum News reported.
“They told us, if we refuse to sell, they will mine around us,” resident Emilie Nelson told the cable news station.
What’s next for the Piedmont Lithium mine?
Piedmont has not yet applied for a North Carolina mining permit or county zoning rights to begin work on its mine, Reuters reported.
However, the company signed a five-year contract with automaker Tesla Inc. last fall, promising the auto giant a third of all spodumene ore it extracts from its Gaston County properties, according to the wire service. Spodumene is the main lithium-rich ore the company plans to mine.
Piedmont told Tesla that extraction would begin between July 2022 and July 2023, according to Reuters. Piedmont has already spent $58 million on the project, and has hired banks to find investors for about $800 million more.
Five of seven members of the Gaston County board of commissioners told Reuters that they might block Piedmont’s zoning requests because the company hasn’t told them how its project could impact quality of life in the area.
“Piedmont has sort of put the proverbial cart before the horse. Why in the world would they make this deal with Tesla before they even have approval for the mine?” board chair Tom Keigher told Reuters.
“Maybe it would have been better had (commissioners) been in the loop constantly,” Phillips told Reuters. “We didn’t really have the time or resources to do it and we didn’t even know what to tell them, until now.”