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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.

In Gaston County, Tension Between A Climate Remedy And Environment

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

Transportation is the nation's largest source of greenhouse gases that cause global warming, accounting for about 29%. So switching to electric vehicles is an important strategy to tackle the problem. But it's more complicated than that. As Gaston County officials and residents are learning, one climate change solution can bring other environmental worries.

Piedmont Lithium officials have already spent $58 million on test drilling, land acquisition and other planning for an $840 million mining operation in northern Gaston County. They haven't spent much time explaining the project to county commissioners, who must approve a rezoning to let it happen.

"As a county commissioner we've been completely left in the dark, and I just think that's a mistake," County Commissioner Tracy Philbeck said at Tuesday night's county commission meeting.

After hearing a company presentation, a majority of the seven commissioners were skeptical of the project and frustrated about how they've learned about it. Commissioner Chad Brown said he's had to go online in search of information so he can respond to citizens' concerns.

"It's not what I should be doing to have to figure out what the citizenry is asking me about your company, and I find it very damaging to me to have to tell these people I don't know anything about it," Brown said.

The mine and processing facilities on the 3,000-acre site would help fight climate change by supplying lithium hydroxide for electric vehicle batteries for Tesla and other companies. Researchers suggest there could be a global shortage of lithium within a few years as demand for electric vehicles grows.

Concerns About Traffic, Pollution And Environmental Damage

But at Tuesday's 2½-hour commission meeting, two dozen residents and commissioners raised strictly local concerns about traffic, air and water pollution, and environmental damage from an open-pit mine that could be as much as 500 feet deep.

Commissioner Bob Hovis pointed to old lithium mines that closed decades ago nearby and left open pits and contamination. Hovis called on the company to set aside a fund to pay for environmental damage and to restore the site once the lithium source runs out in 20 years — something that's required by the state.

"Because it's not a matter of … if, it's a matter of when," Hovis said. "There'll be some impact, unintended consequences that we don't know about today, none of us I don't think are that smart."

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David Boraks
Gaston County residents opposed to a proposed lithium mine collected signs and exchanged contact information before Tuesday's county commission meeting.

Piedmont Lithium CEO Keith Phillips addressed commissioners for the first time since planning began five years ago. He said the company has spent the past year improving the project and he hasn't been ready to talk until now.

Phillips said his goal is to create the most sustainable and technically advanced lithium hydroxide business in the world.

"We have the big advantage of starting in 2021, not 2019 or some earlier time," Phillips said. "So, technology improves, we're capitalizing on that. And we believe we can benefit the local economy by creating jobs and contributing to the prosperity of the community broadly. And we want to be an environmental steward for the community."

Phillips said the operation will create about 500 jobs by the time it opens as early as 2024. Because all the operations will be on one site, he said it will minimize trucking and shipping. Other producers sometimes ship ore around the word for processing. Piedmont also is pledging to use a cleaner process to refine ore and to use a $68 million conveyor system instead of trucks to move ore and waste around the site.

A 'Gold Mine' Or The Opposite?

A few people in the crowd of 200 residents at Tuesday's meeting supported the project. One woman called it a "gold mine" for the county. And it's a windfall for 140 landowners who have sold or agreed to sell. Kevin Gee is selling his house and 22 acres to the company.

"I'm here to chase a dream," Gee said. "Piedmont is going to make that a reality. I have a North Carolina Board of Education lottery ticket in my pocket, because I'm a dreamer, OK? I see the potential of a project like this and embrace it."

But many more speakers were like Brian Harper, who lives nearby and operates a machine shop business. He said his equipment requires precision and will be negatively impacted by blasting and vibration.

"What's ironic about the gentleman that preceded me (who) talked about his dream is my dream is fixing to be taken away," he said. "We moved there in 2004 to bring our business from Gastonia to a wonderful area. And now all that is going to be gone."

Environmental Concerns

About 1,700 people have signed an online petition opposing the project, and most in the crowd weren't swayed by Phillips' pledges.

Bobby Tedder said he lives 3/8 of a mile from the mine site. He said test drilling has already disrupted turtles and other wildlife, and damaged private wells.

"What type of heavy metals are going to come out of this?" Tedder asked "Arsenic? Lead? Mercury? How is it going to affect everything?"

And Tedder said even though it's not a done deal, the proposed mining operation is already pushing down home prices. He said commissioners should cut property taxes.

"How much are you going to drop our taxes? Because I'm not gonna be able to sell my property when they start blasting," Tedder said.

Water quality is another major concern. That's what brought Catawba Riverkeeper Brandon Jones to Tuesday's meeting. He said streams in the area eventually flow into the South Fork River and Lake Wylie. He's not concerned about public water supplies, but has other concerns.

"Our main concern is this is a very, very large development," Jones said. "Like any other large development, this is going to be large changes in topography. They're going to be in-filling thousands of linear feet of streams, and around 10 acres, 13 acres of wetland."

The online petition against the project was started by Warren Snowdon, who lives on a fourth-generation family farm near the site.

"You know, we're not against technology or against the environment," Snowdon said before the meeting. "We're actually for the environment. And that's why we're just really opposed to the idea of open pit mines."

He added: "I think people are just a little bit misunderstanding where batteries and where the technology and where lithium comes from."

'There's No Such Thing As Clean Energy'

Piedmont Lithium has not submitted a rezoning request and still needs state approvals, including a state mining permit. The company expects to file that application next month, when it will provide more detailed environmental information.

Philbeck, the county commissioner, said he understands the need to develop U.S. lithium sources to reduce China's dominance of the market for electric vehicle batteries. But at the same time, he adds: "The more I've looked into this process of clean energy, the more I realize that there's really no such thing as clean energy."

Philbeck said the board is unlikely to take up any rezoning request until after the state grants a mining permit. And when it does, Philbeck says, "You're going to have to show that this community matters."

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