Gaston Commissioners Wary About Proposed 3,000-Acre Lithium Mine
Gaston County leaders aren't usually averse to economic development. But a proposed lithium mining and processing operation in the northern part of the county got a chilly reception from a majority of commissioners Tuesday night. That came amid concerns from both residents and commissioners about potential environmental damage, traffic and — until now — a lack of information about the mine.
Commissioners got their first formal look at Piedmont Lithium's $840 million plan to develop a mine and processing site on about 3,000 acres near Bessemer City, roughly 30 miles from uptown Charlotte. They also heard an hour of comments from residents who were mostly against the idea.
Several commissioners said they were frustrated that they were only now getting a presentation about the project even though it's been planned for five years.
"We're trying to figure out how we can help you do business in Gaston and we are open for business," said Commissioner Chad Brown. "But we can't do it when we don't know. There are so many unanswered questions."
Piedmont Lithium CEO Keith Phillips told commissioners the company has made substantial changes to its plans and wasn't ready for a scheduled presentation to the commission in March.
"We didn't want to waste commissioners' time," Phillips said. "We've spent the past year improving the project."
Commissioner Tracy Philbeck said he understands the need for the U.S. to develop its own lithium industry to prevent overreliance on China, which supplies most of the world's processed lithium. But he said Piedmont Lithium had "left a bad taste in citizens' mouths and even the board" because of poor communication about its plans.
"It's gonna be much easier to get $840 million than I think it's gonna be to get community support, especially if people feel that their concerns have not been taken legitimately," Philbeck said.
Commissioners' expressed their concerns after listening to comments from more than 20 speakers. They included 80-year-old Libby Carpenter, whose family has lived in the rural area for generations.
"Open-pit mining will forever alter that landscape," Carpenter said. "Instead, there will be trucks and traffic and dust and noise and sediment pollution in our streams and rivers."
Other speakers worried about blasting and vibrations and fouled streams and drinking water wells, something they remember from other lithium mines that operated nearby for decades.
Bobby Tedder said he lives about three-eighths of a mile from the mine site. He said test drilling has already disrupted turtles and other wildlife and damaged some residents' wells. He said property values are already depressed and wondered if the county will adjust property taxes.
"How much are you going to drop our taxes? Because I'm not going to be able to sell my property when they start blasting," Tedder said.
Piedmont Lithium officials said they would adopt environmentally friendly processes and follow modern rules to prevent permanent environmental damage. That includes a requirement to restore the site once mining is done in two decades.
Phillips also said the company has decided to build a $63 million conveyor system on the site to alleviate the need for about 30 big trucks that would bring noise and dust.
Phillips on Tuesday also offered to hold monthly meetings with commissioners to discuss more details of its plans.
The company has not yet applied to rezone the property for mining. Officials have said that could come later this year. Piedmont also plans to disclose more environmental information when it files for a state mining permit next month.
Piedmont Lithium so far has raised about $146 million for the project, in part through a public offering of shares. The company is traded on the NASDAQ exchange as PLL. Phillips said the company has hired investment bankers to help raise the rest of the $840 million it needs.
The company's shares fell 20% Tuesday amid concerns that the county commission might not approve the project and word that a shareholder rights law firm was seeking plaintiffs for a possible investor lawsuit. The firm, Johnson Fistel of San Diego, said it is investigating whether the company failed to disclose information to investors.