A proposed open-pit lithium mining initiative in Charlotte, North Carolina just found itself at the center of a controversial debate: are climate goals worth pursuing if it leads to the detriment of the local environment?
Spearheaded by Piedmont Lithium, the project involves the development and eventual operation of a mining and processing operation on a 1,500-acre site in the northern part of Gaston County. According to Piedmont geologist and community relations coordinator Emily Winter, the rock outcrop in the area contains spodumene, one of the primary sources of the lithium hydroxide necessary for the production of rechargeable electric vehicle (EV) batteries.
For his part, Piedmont CEO Keith Phillips believes that the new facility could give the US a leg up in the global race towards securing lithium reserves for individual nations. This sentiment was echoed by North Carolina senator Thom Tillis who declared that it was high time the country had its own lithium sources and processing facilities to decrease China’s dominance of the industry.
Tillis added that the Chinese want to secure their hold on the global economy by ensuring that western nations depend on them for their lithium and other materials necessary to manufacture renewable power solutions. In this case, initiatives like Piedmont’s would give the US the necessary industrial leverage. However, there is a catch: Tillis and other government officials are only willing to support such initiatives if these are done in a manner that does not adversely impact the local environment.
Why the Catch?
Tillis’ condition for his approval is not unfounded. The Piedmont initiative includes the digging of four open-pit mines, each of which is 500 feet deep.
For this to happen, engineers will need to dig up and through farm fields and forests within the vicinity and even alter the flow of a number of natural springs and streams. Likewise, the development is expected to disrupt life for local residents as numerous residential areas will need to be vacated and demolished to make way for mining operations.
While several residents have already sold their holdings to Piedmont, the majority – especially those whose property lies on the borders of the site – are anything but happy.
Former district attorney Locke Bell is one of them. His property, which covers around 120 acres, backs up to the proposed South Pit of the project. When Piedmont representatives approached him regarding the potential sale of his land for mining purposes, he balked.
Bell pointed out that several places in the area had been mined for lithium many decades ago but have since been closed. Unfortunately, these mining sites are now environmental and health hazards as years of lithium mining have tainted them with arsenic.
In any case, Piedmont Lithium still requires the approval of state and local authorities to begin operations – but this may take a while, pending a required environmental impact study.