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A proposed lithium mine presents a climate versus environment conflict

Signs like this one, spotted October 26, 2022, are all over northern Gaston County, North Carolina, near where Piedmont Lithium wants to build a 1500-acre lithium mining and processing operation.
David Boraks/WFAE
Signs like this one, spotted October 26, 2022, are all over northern Gaston County, North Carolina, near where Piedmont Lithium wants to build a 1500-acre lithium mining and processing operation.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - As world leaders meet for another climate summit in Egypt, the U.S. is pushing to mine more lithium for electric vehicle batteries at home. EVs will help cut pollution from transportation, the nation's largest source of greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming. But there's a tradeoff, as residents have learned near Charlotte, where a big open-pit mine is proposed.

A company called Piedmont Lithium wants to build a mine and processing operation on 1,500 acres in northern Gaston County, about 30 miles west of Charlotte.

Emily Winter, a community relations coordinator and geologist for Piedmont, leads the way to a large rock outcrop near what someday might be the mine's South Pit.

"So within this rock, it contains spodumene, the mineral. And that mineral spodumene contains lithium that we can convert to lithium hydroxide that then goes into batteries," Winter explains.

Emily Winter of Piedmont Lithium on October 26, 2022 points out lithium-bearing spodumene in a rock outcrop off Whitesides Road in Bessemer City, N.C.
/ David Boraks/WFAE
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David Boraks/WFAE
Emily Winter of Piedmont Lithium on Oct. 26, 2022 points out lithium-bearing spodumene in a rock outcrop off Whitesides Road in Bessemer City, N.C.

Lithium deposits run through the county in a mile-wide north-south band, known as the Carolina Tin-Spodumene Belt. For decades in the 20th century, 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, and investors see an opportunity.

"There is very little production of lithium raw materials, or any battery raw materials, in the US. The potential's there, but it'll take time to bring it online," says Piedmont Lithium CEO Keith Phillips.

When Piedmont Lithium dedicated its new headquarters in the nearby town of Belmont this summer, U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis was there. The North Carolina Republican said the U.S. needs its own sources of lithium and lithium processing to counter China.

"The Chinese have a stated strategy of being the world's economic and military superpower by 2050. And they don't intend to do that through a great war. They intend to do it by putting their tentacles around the globe, economically," Tillis said. "They intend to make sure that the western world is dependent upon them for lithium, for tantalum, for rare earth minerals, so that they can literally beat us by never firing a shot."

Tillis said that's why he supports Piedmont Lithium's efforts to open a new mine - as long as it's done in an environmentally responsible way. But that's the catch.

When climate goals lead to environmental problems

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 company. But others whose property borders the site aren't happy.

Locke Bell owns 120 acres backing up to the planned South Pit. "Relative to the proposed mine, I have 4,160 feet of common boundary," he says.

Bell is a former district attorney and has been following Piedmont's plans since 2017, when the company approached him about mining on his land. He declined the offer after seeing a detailed map of the proposed mine.

"Suddenly, I saw these massive mines - open pits... We have enough of that around here that's toxic already,'" he says.

He's talking about old lithium mines nearby that closed in the 1980s and 1990s and are now contaminated with arsenic, which occurs naturally in the area's soil and rocks.

Warren Snowden walks on his family farm in Gaston County, NC, with his dog Finn on October 29, 2022. The property borders the site of a 1,500-acre lithium mine planned by Piedmont Lithium. He is helping to lead an opposition group called Stop Piedmont Lithium.
/ David Boraks/WFAE
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David Boraks/WFAE
Warren Snowden walks on his family farm in Gaston County, N.C., with his dog Finn on Oct. 29, 2022. The property borders the site of a 1,500-acre lithium mine planned by Piedmont Lithium. He is helping to lead an opposition group called Stop Piedmont Lithium.

A few miles away on the other side of the mine site, Warren Snowdon has similar concerns. His family's old farm is just across a stream, about 600 yards, from the planned East Pit. He's helping to lead an opposition group called Stop Piedmont Lithium.

"Our issue is on every front: It's water. It's air. It's light pollution. It's noise. It's traffic. Get us a solar farm. Get us a wind farm," says Snowdon, who is quick to say he's not opposed to the country's transition to renewable energy.

State and local officials still must approve the mine

Piedmont Lithium still needs key approvals, including state air and mining permits. Both are delayed while the company responds to requests for more information from North Carolina agencies. Piedmont also faces local political opposition.

Chad Brown chairs the Gaston County Commission, which will have to approve a rezoning for the mine.

"With the information I have right now, I probably would not call for a vote on this," Brown says. "I would have to have tons of more information just for the environmental side, and as far as air quality, water quality, different things like that."

Last year, the commission adopted a 60-day moratorium so it could update its zoning rules to allow a mine. The ordinance has some teeth - it limits blasting and truck traffic, Brown says. But he's not sure Piedmont will be able to get the electricity and water it needs for mining and processing.

Asked if he thinks the mining project will happen, he says, "I think right now, you're still at 50-50, just for the simple fact of it's a long way out."

Still, Piedmont Lithium's CEO Keith Phillips is optimistic.

"So the permitting process is more involved, and it will take longer. And our plan, our hope, is that we'll be in production in Carolina in 2026, and will be fully permitted and approved and funded sometime in 2024," he says.

While it pursues that goal, the company has a backup plan: It's building a processing plant in Tennessee with help from a $141.7 million federal grant. And it's counting on mines in Quebec and Ghana to supply lithium ore.

Piedmont's North Carolina neighbors are rooting for that backup plan instead of the open-pit lithium mine in their community.

Copyright 2022 WFAE

David Boraks
David Boraks is a WFAE weekend host and a producer for "Charlotte Talks." He's a veteran Charlotte-area journalist who has worked part-time at WFAE since 2007 and for other outlets including DavidsonNews.net and The Charlotte Observer.