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Gaston Commissioners Pass 60-Day Moratorium To Weigh Lithium Mine

040519 Lithium testing.jpg
David Boraks
Workers drilled test holes and extracted samples in 2019 at the site of Piedmont Lithium's proposed 3,000-acre mining and processing operation in northern Gaston County.

Gaston County commissioners voted unanimously Friday to adopt a 60-day moratorium that would give them time to consider the impacts of a proposed lithium mine in the county.

The resolution that passed unanimously says the commission needs time to consider whether to adopt new regulations for mining and quarrying operations and other land uses that require blasting and mineral excavation.

It specifically mentions lithium mining, though it does not name the company.

Belmont-based Piedmont Lithium wants to build an $840 million lithium mining and processing operation on about 3,000 acres in northern Gaston County. The site is near Bessemer City, about 30 miles from uptown Charlotte. The company says it would produce lithium hydroxide for batteries to power electric vehicles by Tesla and other manufacturers.

The resolution was proposed by commissioner Tracy Philbeck. It passed without discussion, after a 6 1/2 minute statement by Tom Terrell, an outside lawyer for the county.

"A mine of this size, of this magnitude, of this depth and with these impacts was never anticipated in your development regulations. You need time to develop reasonable regulations for such a use," Terrell said.

Commissioners Concerned

At a commission meeting July 21, a majority of commissioners raised concerns about the idea after the company presented its plans. More than 20 residents also spoke at that meeting. Most opposed the proposal, which they worry would bring traffic, pollute waterways and cause other environmental damage.

Piedmont Lithium needs the county to rezone the property before it can begin the project. The moratorium comes despite the fact that the company has not yet filed a zoning application.

Spokesperson Brian Risinger said Friday the company respects the county's right to adopt a moratorium and looks forward further discussions. Here's his full statement:

"We appreciate the role of the Commissioners and the County staff, they have an important job to do and make decisions on a regular basis that impact all the citizens of Gaston County, and as residents ourselves we respect that. Whether there is ultimately a temporary moratorium or not, we totally understand that it is the duty of the Commissioners to give any proposed project the proper due diligence and we support any action that allows for more discussion and dialogue with the County and the Community about our proposed project. We will continue to follow guidance from the county as it relates to our proposed project and look forward to working closely with them and the community to answer any questions they may have. On the heels of the recent announcements from the White House, we continue to believe our project could be of great benefit to Gaston County and our Country in terms of job creation, economic prosperity and energy independence."

Company Pledges Environmental Efforts

At last month's meeting, Piedmont Lithium officials told commissioners they planned to use 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. The company also plans to build a $63 million conveyor system on the site to eliminate the need for about 30 big trucks that would bring noise and dust.

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.

The open pit mine would be as deep as 500 feet. Some residents and commissioners have invoked the memory of previous lithium mines in the area, which left large open pits and contamination.

Test drilling has identified rich ore deposits on the mostly residential and agricultural land.

Friday's meeting is at 4:30 p.m. at the Gaston County Courthouse in Gastonia. It also will stream live on the county website.

Read the Resolution

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Updated: August 6, 2021 at 5:35 PM EDT
Updated: August 6, 2021 at 4:59 PM EDT
This story has been updated to note that commissioners passed the moratorium.
Updated: August 6, 2021 at 4:40 PM EDT