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Lithium mining company pushes for permit approval in NC despite local opposition

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DTH Photo Illustration. Lithium batteries are in increasingly high demand and have led to the development of lithium mines and processing plants like the one being proposed in Gaston County. The region is part of the largest lithium belt in the U.S.

As the demand for lithium — used to develop batteries for electric vehicles — increases, a corporation plans to meet demand in North Carolina despite local opposition.

Piedmont Lithium plans to develop a 1500-acre mine containing four 500-foot deep pits for lithium extraction with a processing plant on-site in Gaston County, according to Erin Sanders, senior vice president of corporate communications and investor relations at Piedmont Lithium.

Sanders said Gaston County is part of the largest lithium belt in the U.S.

“​​Gaston County is poised to be an important contributor to the lithium production in the world again, but this time it's really important for U.S. energy security,” Sanders said. “Currently, China produces about 80 percent of the world's battery-grade lithium, so it's really important that we have sources in the U.S. from North America.”

Sanders said Piedmont Lithium is in the process of acquiring state mining permits, then it will move to gain local zoning approval. She said she expects permits to be approved by 2024 to start construction and production by 2026.

But getting to that stage could be difficult with local opposition from community members and officials in Gaston County.

Community members founded a group called Stop Piedmont Lithium and have amassed over 2,600 petition signatures to push state and local officials to deny Piedmont Lithium’s permit requests.

Chad Brown, the chairperson of the Gaston County Board of Commissioners, said he is skeptical of the safety of a mining project at this scale.

“The Board of Commissioners has lots of questions about environmental impact," Brown said. "We have lots of questions on water quality. What happens to the wells that go on there? There's over 1,600 wells in that area. Where do they go?”

Lisa Stroup, a farm owner and member of Stop Piedmont Lithium, said if the project is approved, her farm would be three miles away from one of the four open pits in the proposed mine.

Stroup said the project poses a risk of groundwater depletion and arsenic contamination, which can cause various health problems, like cancer. Arsenic is a naturally-occurring element in their soil, but Stroup said mining 500 feet deep would draw water down, pulling arsenic into the groundwater.

Sanders said Piedmont Lithium will engage in “pressure leaching,” which uses steam in the production of lithium hyroxide while reducing the risk of allowing contaminants to enter local water sources. She said the process avoids using traditional mining practices that rely on sulfuric acid, which leads to other water contamination issues.

While pressure leaching may offset water contamination concerns, the International Mine Water Association Congress found in 1991 that open pit mining disturbs chemicals in soil due to “breaking and degradation of land,” causing physical imbalances.

“We depend on water from the creeks around here to water our livestock and well water, groundwater,” Stroup said. “So when they are drawing down the water from the pits to be able to mine them, as deep as they're saying these pits are going to be, it is going to have a great impact on the groundwater and the surface water.”

Warren Snowdon, another member of Stop Piedmont Lithium, said concerns like noise and dust pollution are important to him. Snowdon said his home would be approximately 800 feet from the east pit. 

Trees will serve as a barrier to the sound from mining operations, Sanders said and investments for a conveyer belt will reduce the need for more trucks on-site, which generally lift dust particles into the air.

Despite parameters that aim to offset Piedmont Lithium’s impact, Snowdon said he distrusts the development because of the corporation's lack of transparency. He said the company promised public meetings and open dialogues with citizens, a promise that is yet to be fulfilled.

Sanders said they have been open with whatever insight residents could offer and that Piedmont Lithium has opened an office near the community to foster open dialogue.

Snowdon said community relations with Piedmont Lithium are strained, as many have felt forced to sell their homes to make room for mining development. 

This perception developed two years ago and is not how Piedmont Lithium operates, Sanders said.

“I think what you might imagine in discussions, there have been people who have chosen not to sell, and that's totally their prerogative,” Sanders said. “But if a realtor says, ‘Okay, well, this is going to be next to you, I just want you to know that because your neighbors all sold,’ would you perceive that as a threat? Maybe. It's not how it should have been intended, but people are emotional. You can understand how people might perceive things differently.”

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CLARIFICATION:  This article includes an original quote where Sanders said China currently “uses” 80 percent of the world’s lithium. She later clarified and told The Daily Tar Heel the country produces, not uses, that amount. 

CORRECTION: The original version of this article said the process of pressure leaching removed acid from water. Instead, pressure leaching uses steam to treat lithium hydroxide and reduce treatment time. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for this error.

@GowriAbhinanda

@DTHCityState | city@dailytarheel.com