Piedmont North Carolina's gold-mining history is well known. Not so well known is that mines west of Charlotte once produced most of the world's supply of another important element - lithium. Those mines in Gaston County shut down nearly three decades ago. But a company called Piedmont Lithium wants to open a new surface mine next year to supply lithium for batteries to power electric vehicles.
Lithium deposits run in a mile-wide band through Gaston County, from the Lincoln County line south to Kings Mountain on the South Carolina border. For the past year and a half, Piedmont Lithium's crews have been drilling test holes in farm fields and wooded areas in northern Gaston County.
"The reason we're drilling these holes is we're defining a lithium resource," said Lamont Leatherman, the company's chief geologist.
"So we're building a three-dimensional model in the subsurface of these lithium pegmatites and also defining its grade - where it is, how big it is, and the grade of the material."
Pegmatites are crystalline igneous rocks that contain lithium.
MINED DECADES AGO
Geologists know there's lithium here because Gaston County's mines were the primary source of the element until mining companies found cheaper sources in Australia and South America.
As we hiked through woods, we arrived at a water-filled trench, where miners once dug up lithium.
"So this was mined in the late '40s," Leatherman explained. "There's not a lot of records on how much they've produced out of here. But we've drilled this down deep, and the body extends at depth, and this would be something that we would include in our mine plan."
That plan could cover a wide area north of Bessemer City. Over the past couple of years, Piedmont Lithium has leased, bought or signed agreements to buy about 2,100 acres. Much of it is along or near Hephzibah Church Road.
The company is currently seeking federal and state permits for several open pit mines, which eventually could run 500 feet deep. If it all works out, Piedmont Lithium expects to begin mining as soon as the end of 2020, said CEO Keith Phillips
"We would hope to finance the project around the end of this year and begin construction early next year. The construction will take six to nine months," Phillips said. "We would hope to begin production the second half of 2020 and really have the project ramped up and be in commercial production by the end of 2020 early 2021."
Workers will blast ore out of the ground and haul it away by truck for processing by other companies. Eventually, Phillips said, Piedmont Lithium wants to build its own processing plant in Gaston County. He said the closer it is to the mine, the lower Piedmont's transportation costs, and the greater the opportunity for profit.
LITHIUM'S PAST AND FUTURE
Lithium has been used as a medicine to treat depression and bipolar disorder. It's also a good lubricant. And it's added to specialized glass and ceramics, to make them stronger. But the big demand these days is for use in lightweight batteries - especially for electric cars. And that trend is still in the early stages, said economist Michael Walden of North Carolina State University.
"There is a lot of anticipation, a lot of forecasts that suggest that electric vehicles are going to take over, if I could use that term, are going to push out gasoline-powered vehicles," Walden said. "There are some estimates that suggest that in as soon as 20 years, half of us would be driving electric powered vehicles."
That exploding market is exactly why Piedmont Lithium has spent more than $15 million so far to explore, obtain land options and plan for the mine.
And there's another impetus: Most of the world's lithium comes from Australia and South America, and is processed in China. The U.S. produces just a tiny amount, from one mine in Nevada. As the electric vehicle business takes off, tapping U.S. deposits will reduce the reliance on foreign sources, Phillips said.
"We think the fact that we're going to be an American supplier will be beneficial. Over time, this battery supply chain, which is currently principally in China, Korea and Japan, it will to some extent migrate to the U.S.," he said.
Phillips said the company eventually hopes to sell to customers in the Southeast, such as battery makers and electric vehicle plants in Georgia and Alabama.
HOPES AND CONCERNS
Piedmont's testing confirms that there's a good supply of lithium ore in the area. Dozens of property owners have signed agreements to give up their land if the operation goes forward.
But Dustin Helms has concerns. He lives on 10 acres about two miles from the mine site, across the line in Lincoln County.
"Our concerns were immediately about the property value, about them blasting, and anything to do with the operation," Helms said.
He's said he's also uneasy over that fact that he and neighbors learned about the project only through word of mouth. And he wonders if there will be other mining operations yet to come on surrounding land.
There was a public notice last winter when Piedmont Lithium filed for a federal Army Corps of Engineers permit. The public comment period on that has already ended.
Piedmont cannot operate the mine without getting the area of farms and homes rezoned for industrial use. The company plans to apply for the rezoning later this year.
There hasn't been any public notice from Gaston County, because the company hasn't applied yet.
Local officials welcome the idea of a new industrial business, which initially would create 150 jobs. And there could be another 150 jobs if the company builds its own processing plant in a couple of years.
The Gaston County commission has the final say on the project. Commissioners will hold a public hearing later this year once a final vote on the project approaches.
Bob Hovis is a commissioner from Bessemer City, near the mine site.
"Obviously we would love to have that as a keystone of our economic development efforts," Hovis said. "We're excited to hear what it has to offer. And also we're wanting to make sure that we have a quality development so that they impact on the citizens the Gaston County is only positive not negative."
State and federal officials will be looking at Piedmont's plans for disposing of earth and rock, to make sure it doesn't affect ground water quality.
And there's still the question of what happens in a couple of decades when the mining is done. A now-closed lithium mine nearby remains an open pit surrounded by fences. But geologist Lamont Leatherman said the law no longer allows that.
"The state requires a reclamation bond. And so the site will be reclamated, reclaimed. And exactly what that looks like, there's a couple different options and we're thinking about that," Leatherman said.
But he said they still don't know how big the deposit is and what they'll have to reclaim.