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Albemarle unveils Kings Mountain mine site plan, invites community feedback

Kings Mountain community members sit down for a 40-minute presentation on the mine site plan, process and environmental impact assessment.
Courtesy
/
Albemarle
Kings Mountain community members sit down for a 40-minute presentation on the mine site plan, process and environmental impact assessment.

A version of this article first appeared in WFAE’s Climate Newsletter. Sign up here to receive weekly climate news straight to your inbox. 

Extracting spodumene from pegmatite sounds like something Captain Kirk might do on an alien planet, but actually, this is how we get lithium. I learned this, and more, when I attended a community meeting hosted by Charlotte-based Albemarle at Kings Mountain this past week.

Neighbors of the proposed Kings Mountain lithium mine milled about the convention hall, looking at posters about mine permitting, impact reports and site maps. To the side, Timothy Goode and his father already sat among rows of plastic chairs. They’re watching the mine’s development closely.

“They got the land behind me and the land beside me. I figure they’re going to make a road through there,” said Goode. “[I] tried to get some information, but nobody has any information yet.”

Albemarle formally acquired the long-closed Kings Mountain mine in 2015. It currently operates a lithium conversion plant and two research centers nearby. When Albemarle began draining the old mining pit in April, it held 1.3 billion gallons. The water removal will take roughly 18 months.

When the meeting began, the mine’s permitting expert Erik Carlson stood in front of three monitors, three company banners, and two branded water bottles. He looked like he was about to present the next iPhone. Instead, he talked about mining — specifically, reviving what was once one of the largest lithium mines in the U.S.

“We’re going to be mining the same rock that they mined before, called pegmatite,” said Carlson.

Carlson explained that pegmatite contains spodumene, spodumene contains lithium, and lithium makes batteries. The facility can produce 420,000 tons of lithium-containing minerals per year, which equates to roughly 1.2 million EV batteries — many times the number of electric vehicles currently registered in North Carolina.

The company will store what it doesn’t use onsite. Martin Marietta Kings Mountain Quarry, an adjacent mining operation, agreed to accept some of the extra rocks that don’t contain lithium for processing and sale as construction material. Water from the mining pit is currently being treated onsite and released into Kings Creek, a tributary of the Broad River and part of the Catawba-Wateree River Basin.

Carlson also addressed concerns about the project the company had already received about land use, noise and traffic. The company is voluntarily applying for an Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance audit, which Human Rights Watch praised for being the strongest international standard for mining companies.

“No mine has even attempted to meet this standard,” said Carlson in reference to other U.S. mines.

Kings Mountain is not the only U.S. mine that is planning to undergo IRMA audit. The Sibanyne-Stillwater Platinum operation in Montana is undergoing an audit.

Dewey Matherly, a Kings Mountain resident, attended because he was concerned about the environmental impacts reopening the mine would have.

“His presentation was good, but I think we also — as responsible citizens — have to be willing to take that and say [the project] needs to be monitored regularly,” said Matherly. “We need to be a part of that as a community.”

Questions and conversations like this played out all around the convention center. Albemarle still requires approval for over a dozen federal, state and local permits, including a mining permit from state regulators. The company plans to submit applications this summer.

An Albemarle mine expert explains a diorama of the project to a Kings Mountain resident.
Courtesy
/
Albemarle
An Albemarle mine expert explains a diorama of the project to a Kings Mountain resident.

Not far away, Piedmont Lithium is also trying to open a lithium mine in Gaston County. The area could become one of the centers of the EV economy, producing batteries to power electric cars and other devices. But as this week’s meeting showed, the global clean energy transition can also be an intensely local issue.

Shirley Brutko, founder of the Kings Mountain Gateway Trail, stood next to a topographic diorama of the mining pit. She gestured at a raised area north of the pit — Cardio Hill — a former rock discard pile from the old mine.

“There’s one section of the trail that goes over Albemarle property that we’re going to have to have replaced,” said Brutko.

Brutko tracked down Kirsten Martin, a community affairs manager for the project. She pointed to a trail marked on the site map.

“So, do you think that we’re going to keep that piece of trail?” Brutko asked.

“I don’t think we know that yet,” said Martin. She went on to explain that the section of trail might need to be redirected. The back and forth between Martin and Brutko continued a while longer to an ultimately inconclusive ending.

This story was updated on July 2 to clarify language surrounding the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance's audit procedure.

Zachary Turner is a climate reporter and author of the WFAE Climate News newsletter. He freelanced for radio and digital print, reporting on environmental issues in North Carolina.