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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.

NC environmental regulators hear arguments against permit for Gaston lithium mine

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David Boraks
Piedmont Lithium's Brian Risinger talks with residents before a public hearing in Gastonia Monday night on the company's mining permit request.

Most speakers at a public hearing in Gastonia on Monday night urged state environmental regulators to deny a permit for a lithium mine on about 1,500 acres in northern Gaston County.

Piedmont Lithium wants to build the $840 million mine and processing operation east of Cherryville. The company plans to dig four open pits averaging more than 500 feet deep. It expects to sell the lithium to electric vehicle battery makers, and already has a contract with Tesla.

A few speakers were employees or consultants for Piedmont Lithium, who talked up the project's environmental safety and economic benefits

including 500 jobs with annual salaries averaging $90,000. Some noted that lithium is needed to supply the fast-growing market for electric vehicles as the U.S. fights climate change. Transportation is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming.

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David Boraks
More than 120 people attended Monday's public hearing on Piedmont Lithium's application to build a lithium mine in northern Gaston County.

But most speakers were residents and business owners concerned about air and water pollution and losing their quality of life. Robert Carpenter lives about a mile from the 1500-acre site.

"Flora and fauna will be forever destroyed. Two creeks will be forever damaged and altered. And runoff will flow into the South Fork River which will impact drinking water for countless citizens," Carpenter said. "The mine will restrict wildlife movement — deer, turkey etc. — which will be trapped."

Lisa Baldwin said her property is close to the mine site. "The economic benefit to the state and county is insignificant compared to the environmental impact of the proposed mining project," she said.

She and other speakers compared the project to the closed Hallman-Beam lithium mine nearby that once was a major source of U.S. lithium and now is contaminated.

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David Boraks
Some people at the hearing wore badges opposing the mine.

"This is a rock quarry, people," Baldwin said. "Byproducts such as arsenic from the proposed operation will threaten wildlife and impact natural springs, streams, ponds and rivers in and around the county and adjoining watersheds. … I urge you to say yes to life, and no to mining."

The Hallman-Beam mine pre-dated modern mining rules. The 20-year permit Piedmont is seeking would require the site to be cleaned up and restored once mining stops. Piedmont says in the application that it expects to turn two of the four pits into 390-foot deep lakes. The other two would be filled and replanted.

Among the speakers who supported the project was Emily Blackburn, a geologist with Piedmont Lithium. She grew up in Cherryville and got a geology degree from Appalachian State University. After working in Minnesota briefly, she was ecstatic to land a job back in her hometown.

"I couldn't believe it," Blackburn said. "Never in a million years did I think that I could have my dream job as a geologist in my hometown. But here I am a geologist for Piedmont Lithium."

Besides creating jobs directly, she said the company would bring new jobs in small businesses, restaurants, manufacturing companies and other service industries. "This is my home. I would never work for a company that was going to harm my home," Blackburn said.

Comments on the permit are open until Nov. 26. A decision could come next year.

The project still needs a state air quality permit and zoning and other approvals from Gaston County.

You can read more details about the hearing and Piedmont Lithium's 1,200 page application here.

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David Boraks is a veteran journalist who covers climate change for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.