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A study says a lithium mine would boost Gaston County's economy, but leaders are skeptical

Core samples are logged and sent to a lab to test for the concentration of lithium.
David Boraks
A 2019 file photo shows core samples being logged at Piedmont Lithium's Gaston County operation before being sent to a lab to test for the concentration of lithium.

Piedmont Lithium says its proposed mine and processing operation in northern Gaston County will create more than 1,000 jobs and generate $3.9 billion in economic activity in its first six years. But those predictions got a cool reception Tuesday from county commissioners and residents.

The estimates were in an economic impact study out this week that includes both direct jobs and spending at the proposed mine site as well as indirect employment and spending from construction, suppliers and nearby businesses. Finance professor John Connaughton of UNC Charlotte wrote the report for Piedmont Lithium and presented it to commissioners.

"We're looking at $750 (million) to $800 million of annual economic impact that will take place in this county within the next decade," Connaughton said.

Connaughton predicts 1,051 jobs would be created, including 428 at the mine with an average salary of $82,000 a year — well above the county average of $61,000. Other jobs would come at suppliers it uses for things like maintenance, insurance and accounting, machinery and equipment, trucking and landscaping.

Gaston County Commissioner Allen Fraley questioned an economic impact report prepared for Piedmont Lithium.
Gaston County
Gaston County Commissioner Allen Fraley questioned an economic impact report prepared for Piedmont Lithium.

But residents who spoke before the presentation and commissioners who asked questions afterward were skeptical. Commissioner Allen Fraley asked why the report did not include environmental costs such as groundwater disruption, blasting impacts on nearby businesses or lost property values.

Connaughton said it was beyond the scope of his report.

"Some of these numbers to me seem pretty, you know, inflated," Fraley said. "I think it's best-case scenario in a lot of situations, or certainly appears to be."

Piedmont Lithium CEO Keith Phillips said in a news briefing Wednesday that the mine would help the U.S. reduce reliance on China for lithium for electric vehicle batteries and "help support our national security interests."

Phillips said Gaston County has one of the largest supplies of lithium in the world, which could help supply growing demand. He also noted that many electric vehicle-related businesses have begun locating in the Carolinas.

"Most of the new announcements, and there were some very big multibillion-dollar announcements of new battery and electric vehicle capacity, in the second half of 2021, most of those are within a few 100 miles of this location," Phillips said. "We're right in their backyard."

Piedmont Lithium has yet to seek county rezoning. A spokesperson said the company is waiting for a state mining permit, which could be decided on in the next few months.

Here's John Connaughton's slide presentation to the Gaston County Commission, offering details of the estimated economic impact of the proposed Piedmont Lithium mining operation.

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