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Energy & Environment
WFAE reporter David Boraks explores how the way we live influences climate change and its impact across the Carolinas. You also can read additional national and international climate news.

Opposition Expected When Gaston County Lithium Mining Plan Is Unveiled Tuesday

A company planning to mine and process lithium in northern Gaston County will make its first public presentation about the project Tuesday night to county commissioners. The proposed operation has been in the works for five years but is now facing opposition.

Piedmont Lithium plans to invest about $840 million to build the mine and processing facility on about 3,000 acres near Bessemer City. It will produce lithium hydroxide for batteries to power electric vehicles by Tesla and other manufacturers.

The site is in an area that once was the nation's largest lithium mining region. Mining lasted from the 1940s to the 1980s, before cheaper sources were found in Australia, South America and elsewhere. Test drilling has identified rich ore deposits on the mostly residential and agricultural land.

060921 Piedmont Lithium map.jpg
Piedmont Lithium
A map shows the location of the proposed Piedmont Lithium mining operation in northern Gaston County.

The site is near rail and road transportation routes that could carry lithium to planned and future electric vehicle and battery plants in the Southeast. Piedmont Lithium says in its most recent update that the combined mining and processing operation, coupled with its location, would make it "one of the world's largest and lowest cost producers of lithium hydroxide.

The proposal comes amid growing demand for electric vehicles - and the batteries that power them. In a recent report, Piedmont cited one study of the lithium market that says the world could face shortages as soon as next year.

Piedmont Lithium spokesperson Brian Risinger said the company hopes to break ground as soon as next April.

"What we are proposing is an integrated operation, which would involve the actual shallow, open quarry to extract the mineral, in this instance spodumene, that then goes to — on the same site — a concentrate plant," Risinger said.

While Risinger describes the mine as shallow, the company has said it could be as deep as 500 feet. Risinger said the project would create about 500 permanent jobs.

060921 Piedmont Lithium site plan .jpg
Piedmont Lithium
A site plan shows potential location of surface mines and processing facilities at the proposed Piedmont Lithium site.

He said Piedmont Lithium has bought or contracted to buy all the land it needs for the project. It also needs state mining, air quality, stormwater, and erosion permits and Gaston County zoning approval.

The company has yet to submit a formal rezoning application, so until now there has been no public notice of its plans. But the project has begun getting media attention, and opponents are emerging — mainly residents concerned about how mining would affect the environment and change life in the rural area.

Two change.org petitions against the idea have been circulating in recent weeks. One says it would disrupt the old farming community and displace hundreds of families. It also warns of noise, dust and runoff that could harm the environment.

Risinger said many landowners have sold or signed contracts.

"It's certainly in the hundreds of individual landowners that we have worked with to construct various agreements, from an outright sale to some kind of leasing agreement," he said.

The company also says it would be more environmentally friendly than its existing competitors and could include its own on-site solar farm to power operations. When the mine closes in 20 years or so, pits would be filled and landscaped in cooperation with Gaston County's government, Risinger said.

Residents will have a chance to speak after Tuesday night's presentation. The meeting begins at 6 p.m. at the Gaston County Courthouse on Martin Luther King Jr. Way in Gastonia. See the agenda on the county website.

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