When it comes to mining on sacred lands, some tribal members say their voices have been overlooked
Speaking out: Rural communities of color changing the narrative The nearly 14 million people of color who live in rural America face unique challenges that run the gamut — from navigating racism in real estate, environmental regulation and the justice system to gaining access to healthcare and broadband. This six-part series from the Rural News Network, made possible with support from the Walton Family Foundation, exploresthe issues these communities are facing and what some are doing to change their fates.
Bethany Sam feels a spiritual connection to the high desert of northern Nevada.
A member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the Kutzadik’a Paiute people, Sam works for the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, whose reservation sits just north of Reno, Nevada.
It’s about 200 miles from what could be the country’s largest natural deposit of lithium, a critical mineral suddenly in high demand for use in electric vehicle batteries and electronics.
The distance doesn’t mean Reno-Sparks won’t be affected by the decades-long process of extracting the material from the ground and putting it into the domestic supply chain. A Canadian firm, Lithium Americas, has received federal approval to begin mining at the site, and several indigenous and environmental groups are worried about the potential impacts.
While the tribal government nearest to the project has a community benefits agreement with the company, residents of the Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation and other nearby reservations are dissatisfied with the level of community outreach by federal officials.
Sam said regional tribes, who are all connected to the land, were not consulted, and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management instead opted to communicate with just a few tribes.
“BLM thought that they only had to consult with who they wanted to, not realizing how we’re all related. They should have reached out to more tribes with this consultation, knowing that it was going to be the largest [lithium mine] in the country. They should have really made sure all the Great Basin tribes knew,” she said.
Since its inception, the state of Nevada has been a hotbed for mining. The state was granted statehood during the Civil War, and contributed greatly to the Union through its gold and silver reserves. The Comstock Lode, a major silver ore, sparked mass settlement into the area as people sought to make their fortunes. One such man was a young writer named Samuel Clemens, who upon failing at the mines, took up a job at the local newspaper. It’s here he was first published using his pen name, Mark Twain.
Today, Nevada is the world’s fifth largest producer of gold, digging up significantly more of the valuable material than “The Golden State” of California next door. But, there is another extractive industry taking root in the remote high desert of northern Nevada: lithium.
A 6,000-acre lithium mine and processing plant is under construction in remote northern Nevada, but the project has been stalled by a series of legal challenges from environmentalists, a local rancher and regional tribes. The tribes have said the Bureau of Land Management did not conduct proper consultation with them about this project, which was approved during the pandemic when many tribal governments were closed and dealing with the immediate needs of tribal members.
When it comes to any large-scale projects on federally managed public lands, the BLM is required to consult on a government-to-government basis with affected tribal governments. In the case of the Thacker Pass lithium mine project in northern Nevada, tribes across the Great Basin say that didn’t happen – and that’s causing concern and division among tribal members.
The BLM says in December 2019, it sent certified letters to four regional tribes: the McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe, the Pyramid Lake Tribe, Summit Lake Paiute Tribe, and Winnemucca Indian Colony tribes. The agency says “no comments or concerns have been raised during formal government to government consultation for the Project by the tribes.”
With no objections raised, the BLM approved Lithium Americas’ plans in January 2021 — at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Janet Davis, the chairwoman for the Pyramid Lake Paiute tribe, toldGrist in 2021, “One letter and some emails to the THPO [Tribal Historic Preservation Officer] during the pandemic when she was furloughed does not constitute ‘meaningful consultation.”
Winnemucca Indian Colony chair Judy Rojos told the Nevada Current she didn’t receive a letter until April 2021, after the project had already been approved. And the Summit Lake Paiute Tribe sued the BLM in February 2023, claiming that they weren’t properly consulted on the mine either. Both of those attempts were ultimately rejected by a federal district court judge.
The Bureau of Land Management declined an interview for this story.
The project has caused division among residents of the Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation, which sits a few dozen miles from the mine site. The Tribal Council has been in favor of the project for the economic boom it would bring to the region, while some elders and others have said it would ruin sacred land and water.
That led some members of the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe to form a group, People of Red Mountain, which has been fighting to raise awareness of the project.
“Nobody really knew anything. It was just all this small talk going around about a lithium mine,” said organizer Chanda Callao.
Calls to the Fort McDermitt Tribal Government were not returned.
While not required, the company itself says it has been working with Fort McDermitt tribal members for years leading up to the start of the project.
“We have a vested interest in making sure that your communities thrive,” said Tim Crowley, vice president of government affairs for Lithium Americas.
The company has entered into a community benefits agreement with the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone tribes, pledging to build an 8,000 square feet community center that includes a daycare, preschool, playground, cultural facility and communal greenhouse.
“There is an initial investment that we’re making that’s north of $5 million,” Crowley said.
Crowley said all these legal challenges from tribes have been dismissed in court, and this mine is a good project. The federal government and state of Nevada have given the company all the necessary approvals, so he said it’s time to move forward.
The Thacker Pass Lithium Mine Project
Lithium is a metal that is used in lithium-ion batteries, which powers everything from smartphones and laptops to electric vehicles. The U.S. government has deemed it a critical mineral, with the Biden administration investing billions into domestic lithium development.
The Thacker Pass lithium mine project in rural Humboldt County, along the Nevada-Oregon border, will extract lithium from the ore and process that material into lithium-carbonate, the final component used to make batteries. The project will also include an on-site processing plant, which Crowley said helps to secure the domestic supply chain.
“In terms of scale, it’s large. It’s going to be one of the top five producers in the world, certainly the highest producer in domestic areas…it’s a game changer project,” said Crowley.
Lithium Americas has staked hundreds of mining claims in the area, and estimates that this mine could ultimately provide enough lithium for 1 million electric vehicles a year, for 40 years – and that’s just in the first phase.
The project has garnered attention from both the Trump and Biden administrations, investors and the auto industry, with General Motors recently agreeing to invest $650 million into the company. Crowley said GM will be buying all of the mine’s products for the first ten years, roughly 400,000 tons of lithium-carbonate.
“So we’re not worried about who’s going to take our material, we’re focused on making sure that we produce it in the most sustainable way we possibly can,” Crowley said.
A report from McKinsey & Company estimates the global demand for lithium-ion batteries to increase about 27% annually by 2030, with most of the growth coming from mobility. The Thacker Pass lithium mine project is significant, promising an economic windfall for the people of northern Nevada. But, it’s also causing division among rural communities, including among members of the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribes.
Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation
Nestled within the vast expanse of the high desert of northern Nevada lies the Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation. The area, which crosses into Oregon, was first established as a military outpost in 1865 before it was converted into an American Indian reservation school in 1889.
Arnold Sam is a tribal elder who has lived at Fort McDermitt since he was born, and says it has always been hard to find work here. He’s had to travel to nearby cities, including Winnemucca, Battle Mountain, Denio and Carson City, before eventually retiring back at the reservation.
“I’ve been on the road for I don’t know how many years living out there in the white man’s world, working and all of that,” Sam said.
In addition to the community benefits agreement, Lithium Americas says it is also providing opportunities for good-paying, union jobs, starting with construction, then transitioning to mining operations. But Sam said he’d like to see more from the company to help the day-to-day lives of the residents of this remote reservation, who travel roughly 74 miles to Winnemucca, Nev. for basic supplies and services.
“Bring in homes, we need a lot more homes. Bring in a grocery store or something so we [can] just go a little ways over here instead of driving to Winnemucca. Build another clinic, a bigger clinic,” Sam told the Sierra Nevada Ally.
Sam isn’t convinced the mining company is listening to the issues and concerns of tribal members.
“They don’t care. That’s all they’re talking about, is this money, money, money. They’re not thinking about the Indian people around here,” he said.
And he’s not alone.
Bringing in the Tribal Family
Back in Reno, Bethany Sam (no relation to Arnold) said her traditional knowledge has helped her form a spiritual connection to the land.
“People just look at Mother Earth as the nature that you go recreate in, that you can go hike or go see really pretty waterfalls or things like that. But when it’s just open desert and nothing, they look at it as nothing,” Sam said.
After hearing from Fort McDermitt residents, many of whom said their tribal government wasn’t listening to their concerns, the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony began drawing up maps, outlining the cultural significance of the region. Michon Eben manages the colony’s cultural resource program and serves as its tribal historic preservation officer.
“We stated that this is our cultural area that we would like to be consulted on. However, if there was a big project, then we needed to be consulted,” Eben said.
She said BLM Winnemucca received letters from the RSIC and several tribes in 2021, showing their opposition to this specific project. Much of the resistance is because in the BLM’s documentation approving the mine, there was no mention of an 1865 massacre of Washoe, Shoshone and Paiute people that occurred near the proposed site.
“The environmental impact statement, the record of decision, the Memorandum of Agreement, the Cultural Resources Inventory, the Historic Property Treatment Plan, a lot of the permitting documents that BLM provided to Lithium [Americas] does not talk about the September 12, 1865 massacre, and that’s a historic event that should have been evaluated according to the National Historic Preservation Act.”
Eben argued the massacre site, and the region, is culturally significant, meaning it’s eligible for some protection as part of the Register of National Historic Places, managed by the National Parks Service. Because of this, she said federal agencies should have conducted interviews with regional tribes to better understand the cultural and historical significance. She helped put together a determination that was sent to BLM Winnemucca making her case.
“And a few weeks later, BLM Winnemucca wrote back and said, ‘Yes, they agree with the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, that our determination is eligible, we recommend it eligible to the register of National Historic Places,” Eben said.
But, Eben said the BLM never sent that to the National Parks Service [NPS] – and that could mean the difference between protection and destruction. Property listings under the National Register of Historic Places generally offer no protections, unless “the property is involved in a project that receives Federal assistance, usually funding or licensing/permitting,” per the NPS.
The entirety of the Thacker Pass lithium mine project is on federal public lands.
The Bureau of Land Management Winnemucca declined to comment for this story, due to pending litigation. But, Lithium Americas has acknowledged that a massacre did occur, just not close enough to the mine.
“It’s been analyzed and studied extensively that regrettably there was a massacre in the Quinn River Basin, which is several miles from our project,” Tim Crowley with Lithium Americas said.
To Eben, that argument rings hollow. She said there are many members, residents and employees of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony who have ties to the Thacker Pass area, and the entire mine project lies within the cultural district they are working to get recognized.
“It doesn’t matter about being the closest, what matters is that we’re all related,” she said.
The world’s richest known lithium deposit lies deep in the woods of western Maine, in a yawning, sparkling mouth of white and brown rocks that looks like a landslide carved into the side of Plumbago Mountain.
Mary Freeman and her husband Gary found the deposit five years ago while hunting for tourmaline, a striking, multi-colored gemstone found in the region.
The Freemans make their living selling lab supplies through the Florida-based company they founded 40 years ago, Awareness Technology. But their true love is digging for gemstones, which has brought them for years to Mary’s home state of Maine, the site of some of the best tourmaline hunting in the world.
Since the early 1990s, they’ve been buying up property parcels, studying core samples and old geological maps to determine where to try digging next, then spending hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on blasting and equipment. The couple has dug more than a mile of tunnels in pursuit of beautiful stones, and many of their finds — like blue elbaite and rich multi-colored tourmaline — have wound up on display at the Maine Mineral & Gem Museum in nearby Bethel.
Now, the Freemans want to expand this pit, near the town of Newry, Maine, so they can mine spodumene, crystals that contain the lithium the U.S. needs for the clean energy transition. The timing of their discovery, in what has been named Plumbago North, is remarkable; the Freemans have stumbled across one of the only hard-rock sources of lithium in the U.S. at a time when the material is desperately needed for the clean energy transition.
By 2040, the world will need at least 1.1 million metric tons of lithium annually, more than ten times what it currently produces, according to projections by the International Energy Agency.
Should the Maine deposit be mined, it could be worth as much as $1.5 billion, a huge windfall for the Freemans and a boon to the Biden Administration’s efforts to jumpstart more domestic mining, processing, and recycling of critical minerals such as lithium, cobalt, and rare earth elements to reduce the U.S.’ dependence on China. This is one of the few lithium deposits in the U.S. currently found in hard rock, which means it is higher-quality and faster to process than lithium mined from brine.
“I consider myself an environmentalist,” says Mary, who on a recent rainy visit to the test quarry, was wearing jeans, a sweater, and hiking boots, her white hair pulled into a low ponytail. Most of the country’s critical minerals are mined elsewhere and processed in China, she adds. “I think (the U.S.) should try to be a little bit more self-sufficient.”
But like just about everywhere in the U.S. where new mines have been proposed, there is strong opposition here. Maine has some of the strictest mining and water quality standards in the country, and prohibits digging for metals in open pits larger than three acres. There have not been any active metal mines in the state for decades, and no company has applied for a permit since a particularly strict law passed in 2017.
As more companies begin prospecting in Maine and searching for sizable nickel, copper, and silver deposits, towns are beginning to pass their own bans on industrial mining.
“This is a story that has been played out in Maine for generations,” says Bill Pluecker, a member of the state’s House of Representatives, whose hometown of Warren — a 45-minute drive from the capital city of Augusta — recently voted overwhelmingly in favor of a temporary ban on industrial metal mining after a Canadian company came looking for minerals near a beloved local pond. “We build industries based on the needs of populations not living here and then the bottom drops out, leaving us struggling again to pick up the pieces.”
Mainers often invoke the Callahan Mine in the coastal town of Brooksville as a warning. Tailings from the mine, which operated for several years in the late 1960s, were disposed of in a pile next to a salt marsh and creek. The former mine is now a Superfund site, and a 2013 study by researchers at Dartmouth College found widespread evidence of toxic metals in nearby sediment, water and fish. Cleanup costs, borne by taxpayers, are estimated between $23 million and $45 million.
“Our gold rush mentality regarding oil has fueled the climate crisis,” says State Rep. Margaret O’Neil, who presented a bill last session that would have halted lithium mining for five years while the state worked out rules (the legislation ultimately failed). “As we facilitate our transition away from fossil fuels, we must examine the risks of lithium mining and consider whether the benefits of mining here in Maine justify the harms.”
The Freemans point out that they plan to dig for the spodumene, then ship it out of state for processing, so there would be no chemical ponds or tailings piles. They liken the excavation of the minerals to quarrying for granite or limestone, which enjoys a long, rich history in Maine.
Advocates for mining in the U.S. argue that, since the country outsources most of its mining to places with less strict environmental and labor regulations, those harms are currently being born by foreign residents, while putting U.S. manufacturers in the precarious position of depending on faraway sources for the minerals they need. Though there are more than 12,000 active mines in the U.S., the bulk of them are for stone, coal, sand, and gravel.
There is only one operational lithium mine in the U.S., in Nevada, and one operational rare earth element mine, in Mountain Pass, Calif., meaning that the U.S. is dependent on other countries for the materials essential for clean energy technologies like batteries, wind turbines, and solar panels. Even after they’re mined, those materials currently have to be shipped to China for processing since the U.S. does not have any processing facilities.
“If we’re talking about critical metals and materials, we’re so far behind that it’s crazy,” says Corby Anderson, a professor at the Colorado School of Mines. “It’s the dichotomy of the current administration — they have incentives for electric vehicles and all these things, but they need materials like graphite, manganese, nickel, cobalt, lithium, and copper. The only one we mine and refine in this country is copper.”
The COVID-19 pandemic laid bare the problems of faraway supply chains; as U.S. consumers shopped online in their homes, the goods they bought, mostly from Asia, experienced lengthy delays at clogged ports. What’s more, diplomatic tensions with China motivated the U.S. government to seek other potential sources for mining, material processing, and recycling.
That’s why, in the pandemic’s aftermath, the Biden Administration launched an initiative to secure a Made in America supply chain for critical minerals. It included billions in funding for companies trying to mine and process critical minerals domestically.
The rocks in Plumbago North would seem to help provide a domestic supply chain for critical minerals; they are thought to be among the largest specimens of spodumene ever found, with crystals of such high quality that in addition to batteries, they could be used to make scientific glassware or computer screens, where the lithium metal would help lower the melting temperature.
The Freemans are just two of the hundreds of people prospecting for critical materials across the country as the U.S. tries to strengthen the domestic supply chain.
Geologists say there’s also likely a lot more lithium in spodumene deposits across New England. Communities that haven’t had working mines in years may soon find themselves a key source for lithium and other minerals needed for car batteries, solar panels, and many of the objects people will need more of to transition themselves off polluting fossil fuels.
There are good reasons for U.S. communities to have healthy skepticism about mining projects; there is no shortage of examples of a company coming into a community, mining until doing so becomes too expensive, then leaving a polluted site for someone else to clean up. There are more than 50,000 abandoned mines in the western United States alone, 80% of which still need to be remediated. Passage of landmark environmental laws like the Clean Air Act of 1970 and the Clean Water Act of 1972 hasn’t made mining safe enough, environmentalists say.
“All mines pollute in one way or another, and mines are really bad at predicting how much they’re going to pollute,” says Jan Morrill, who studies mining at the environmental group Earthworks, which recently found that 76% of mining companies in the U.S. polluted groundwater after saying they wouldn’t.
One of the most problematic parts of mines is the tailings, or waste, Morrill says: Companies extract the minerals they need, then are left with a giant pile of rock, liquid, and chemicals that they store in ponds or behind dams that sometimes prove unstable. These tailings have caused landslides, excessive dust, and water pollution; more than 300 mine tailing dams have failed worldwide over the last century, according to Christopher Sergeant, a research scientist at the University of Montana.
It is not uncommon for tailings to leak into water, in fact, there is a permit that mine owners can get in case they find their projections were wrong and they need to discharge into U.S. waters.
Even “modern mines” that adhere to the latest U.S. standards — which are among the strictest in the world — still pollute, Earthworks has found. Though there are, theoretically, non-polluting ways to store mine tailings, doing so is much more expensive and mine operators have largely not paid to do so, Morrill says. That’s because, says Aimee Boulanger, executive director of the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance, “laws and markets have not fully incentivized companies to do that.”
Indeed, the Biden initiative to increase domestic mining includes, for example, a $700 million loan for Ioneer, a company planning a lithium mine on Rhyolite Ridge in Nevada, where environmental groups say the mine, as proposed, would cause the extinction of an endangered species called Tiehm’s buckwheat. The Administration is also spending $115 million to help Talon Nickel build a battery minerals processing facility in North Dakota, but the potential mine they would source from, in Minnesota, is opposed by Indigenous groups and environmentalists who fear it could contaminate wells in the area.
Still, the U.S. has a more rigorous regulatory environment than many other countries, she says, and there are domestic mines that even some environmentalists support, like the Stillwater Mine in Montana. Community organizations there signed a Good Neighbor Agreement in 2000 with the Sibanye-Stillwater Mining Company allowing the firm to extract platinum and palladium — while also establishing clear and enforceable water standards, restrictions to minimize local traffic, and third-party auditors to ensure the mine adheres to the standards it set out. The mine is now one of the top employers and private-sector income generators in Montana.
But advocates had to force the Agreement; three grassroots organizations sued to stop the construction of the mine, and after a year of negotiations, the mining company and grassroots groups agreed to the contract instead of going to court.
With support from elected officials trying to find ways to mine more critical minerals in the U.S., companies may not feel the need to make similar promises to the local community.
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Environmental concerns aren’t the only problem with mining, Morrill says. The history of mining in the U.S. is linked to colonialism; Christopher Columbus was looking for gold when he stumbled across North America, and as Europeans expanded into the continent, they took land from Indigenous people to mine for gold, silver, and other metals.
Today, mining in the U.S. often encroaches on Indigenous land. Under mining laws in the U.S. that date to 1872, anyone can stake a claim on federal public lands and apply for permits to start mining if they find “valuable” mineral deposits there. Most lithium, cobalt, and nickel mines are within 35 miles of a Native American reservation, Morrill says, largely because in the aftermath of the 1849 gold rush, the U.S. military removed tribes to reservations not far from mineral deposits in the West. In one particularly controversial project, the mining company Rio Tinto wants to build a copper mine on Oak Flat, Ariz., a desert area adjacent to an Apache reservation that Indigenous groups have used for centuries to conduct cultural ceremonies.
Yet fears about the effects of climate change are escalating the pressure on local communities to get out of the way of mines, says Thea Riofrancos, an associate professor of political science at Providence College who studies mining and the green energy transition. She and other scholars have questioned whether projections that the world will face lithium shortages by 2025 are accurate; recycling more batteries and transitioning away from private vehicles to more public transportation, for example, could reduce our long-term need for lithium-ion energy storage.
“We should think about what is driving this demand, why does this rush feel so intensive, why is there not a version where we are going to try and do this transition with the least amount of mining possible?” Riofrancos says.
Most environmentalists agree that the 1872 mining law needs to be updated and there are several bills in Congress that would do so. The Clean Energy Minerals Reform Act of 2023, for example, introduced by Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) in May, would require more tribal consultation and change how mining is approved on federal lands.
Finding a way to mine in the U.S. could help address a moral quandary, that we consume these materials but ask other countries to bear the brunt of their extraction, says Boulanger, with IRMA.
“There’s an argument to be made that if we’re going to use these materials, and we live in the most consumptive country in the world, we shouldn’t be making other countries be the bank account of our natural resources,” she says.
If lawmakers and regulators can’t agree on how to mine on U.S. soil, it could leave the U.S. susceptible to essentially outsourcing its mining problems to less-regulated countries. For example, last October, the Department of Energy used the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to give a $141.7 million grant to Piedmont Lithium, which is building a plant in Tennessee to expand U.S. supply of lithium hydroxide, used in long-range batteries for electric vehicles.
In March, Blue Orca Capital, a hedge fund, said it was “shorting,” or betting against the stock of Piedmont Lithium, alleging that the spodumene the firm plans to refine into lithium at its Tennessee facility was guaranteed by bribes to the son of a high-level politician in Ghana — ”because of corruption,” those raw materials are likely to never come to fruition, the hedge fund says. Piedmont denies the allegations and says in a statement provided to TIME that the Minerals Income Investment Fund of Ghana told the company that it has valid licenses and permits for all its current activities.
Most of the proposed critical materials mines in the U.S. are not near a big population center — or economic activity, and some communities are in favor of a mine for the jobs it would create. But the proposed locations could instead lead to situations where sparsely populated communities don’t learn about a planned mine until it’s too late to stop it. “It can feel really fast — all of a sudden an enormous project is being proposed next door to you, it took years for the company to prospect but you didn’t hear about it ‘til now,” says Riofrancos.
The Freemans’ mine is not one of these projects. Though it is five miles from the nearest town, Maine is going through an extensive review process to decide whether to let the couple keep digging. Earlier in 2023, there were seven bills in the legislature regarding the potential of mining lithium in Maine.
Lawmakers ultimately settled on legislation that may open the door to extracting the Freemans’ lithium by allowing larger open pit metal mines, so long as developers can prove they won’t pollute groundwater and the local environment. But the new law will require changing the state’s mining regulations, which may mean it could be years before the couple is able to start digging in earnest.
The Freemans say their mine would not pollute the surrounding land and water, as the chemical composition of the crystals and the rocks around them is such that they would not dissolve into dangerous acid when exposed to air and water. Geologists that TIME/Maine Monitor spoke with agree with that assessment. Further, the crystals, says Mary, would be shipped out of state in large chunks for processing, so there would be no chemical ponds or tailings.
Many geologists agree that the Freemans’ proposal would not be as disruptive as other proposed mines across the country. Other metals (like nickel, silver, and zinc) typically occur in bands of rock deep below the surface that contain iron sulfides, which create sulfuric acid when exposed to air and water, polluting waterways for decades, a phenomenon known as acid mine drainage. Some spodumene crystals at Plumbago North, by contrast, have been naturally exposed to air and water for hundreds of millions of years and not broken down.
On a visit to the test quarry this spring, Gary Freeman pointed out one large piece of spodumene lying at the bottom of a nearby brook, the water over it rushing fast and clear, not the rusty orange of an acid-contaminated stream. (The waterway is known, fittingly, as Spodumene Brook.) “The water is so good Poland Spring wants to bottle it and sell it,” says Mary.
Still, Morrill, of Earthworks, says there’s just not enough research about the effects of hard rock spodumene mining to say for sure that the mine wouldn’t harm the environment. Since so many people in Maine depend on recreation and tourism for their livelihoods, she says, it makes the most sense to keep protective regulations in place.
Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection has rejected the Freemans’ request to consider the land a quarry, and is instead classifying spodumene as a metallic mineral. As the law stands, the Freemans will have to apply for permits under Maine’s 2017 Metallic Mineral Mining Act, a costly process (the application processing fee alone is $500,000) that would take years.
Meanwhile, the local community is divided. After all, in Maine it’s not difficult to find people still living with the long-term damage of older mines. On the other hand, many Mainers are pragmatic and understand the state has long, dark winters, and will need battery storage for any renewable energy it generates on sunny or windy days. The alternative is to continue relying on fossil fuels, which would exacerbate climate change.
Myles Felch, curator at the Maine Mineral and Gem Museum, is one of these practical Mainers. He was raised in Union, where a groundswell of opposition has formed to resist a proposal by Canada-based Exiro Minerals to look for nickel near a beloved local pond. Felch isn’t thrilled with the prospect, but also knows we can’t continue to be so detached from the minerals we use in our daily life.
“I love the place where I grew up and I wouldn’t want anything to ever happen to it,” said Felch. But “You need mineral resources,” said Felch. “Most people were probably texting ‘stop the mine’ with a nickel cobalt battery in their phones.”
Lithium mining debate: Can Gaston County embrace green energy without sacrificing rural life?
By Will Atwater
In early May, it’s possible to find fields of wheat and lavender-colored straw flowers bordering two-lane roads that wind through Gaston County. This part of Cherryville Township lies roughly 35 miles northwest of Charlotte and about 82 miles southwest of Black Mountain.
The picturesque rural scene embodies the tagline attached to the logo on nearby Lincolnton’s website: “Near the City. Near the mountains. Near Perfect.”
Continue driving, and one quickly discovers white signs lining county roads revealing what many locals see as a threat to the pastoral lifestyle that drew them here. The message in bold, black letters reads: “Gaston County Pit Mine,” enclosed in a red circle with a line drawn through the middle.
Hugh and Libby Carpenter, both in their 80s, live on 5 acres between South Fork and Beaver Dam creeks in Cherryville Townshipnear Lincolnton. It’s been nearly 51 years since the couple moved to the land, where they raised two daughters.
Hugh Carpenter said the property, which has been in his family since the early 1900s, was once part of a 50-acre farm that produced wheat, oats, corn and other vegetables.
The Carpenters’ property is about 2,000 feet from one of the sites of a proposed mine to extract lithium, a vital element necessary to create everything from batteries that power cell phones to those that power motor vehicles.
They’re determined not to let the lithium mining conversation upset their lives.
“God’s going to take care of us. If we move, we move. We don’t want it to happen, but we don’t always get our way,” said Libby Carpenter.
Many questions remain, including whether the N.C. Mining Commission will approve Piedmont Lithium’s application.
David Miller, the state’s mining specialist, sent Piedmont Lithium a 4-page letter on May 30 outlining things that need addressing in the company’s permit application. The company has 180 days to address the issues. If Piedmont Lithium receives a mining permit from the state, the final hurdle will be securing a permit from Gaston County.
Modern-day gold rush?
The Tin-Spodumene belt is a lithium-rich mineral deposit in western North Carolina that runs southwest to northeast, into Gaston County through farm country. The deposit could play a significant role in the Biden administration’s energy plan, which races to curb CO2 emissions. That includes establishing domestic sources of lithium to support the nation’s expanding electric car fleet.
In 2022, the administration pledged $675 million to beef up the nation’s domestic Critical Materials Research Program, according to a release by the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.
“We can follow through on President Biden’s clean energy commitments and make our nation more secure by increasing our ability to source, process, and manufacture critical materials right here at home,” U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said in a partial statement.
After a glance around the streets and parking lots of Cherryville Township, one may get the impression that the EV car craze has yet to catch on in the area. NC Health News saw a single Tesla parked nearby when the council voted to grant Piedmont Lithium’s relinquishment request.
Yet, nations and large multinational corporations are scouring the globe for minerals needed to fuel the emerging green economy. One unanswered question is whether rural communities such as Gaston County will help shoulder the nation’s green energy goals without damaging its natural environment or quality of life.
All in the name of progress.
In April, North Carolina Health News reported on Piedmont Lithium’s efforts to establish a mining operation in Gaston County. At that time, Cherryville’s council members elected to postpone a vote on the mining company’s extraterritorial jurisdictional relinquishment request.
A month later, on May 8, the council voted unanimously to grant the request. Now, the 15 parcels at the center of the request are under the county’s jurisdiction, and Cherryville no longer has any right to regulate what happens on the land. And any taxes from the land will flow to the county, not Cherryville.
Nonetheless, Cherryville will provide water infrastructure, such as water lines and municipal water service, to the mining operation for 20 years. In exchange, Piedmont Lithium proposed to contribute $1 million toward establishing a parks and recreation office and to support “specifically identified parks and recreation projects,” according to the agreement.
After securing the first load of lithium hydroxide from the mining operation, Piedmont Lithium agrees to contribute $500,000 annually to the city of Cherryville for 20 years for a total of $10 million.
Agreement fuels distrust
Despite vocal opposition to establishing an open-pit lithium mine in Gaston County, the Cherryville council has twice cleared hurdles, which helped advance Piedmont Lithium closer to its goal and has increased distrust among locals who opposed the mine.
And in the way of small towns, where everyone knows everyone, people talk.
Once he reviewed the agreement, Gaston County resident and business owner Brian Harper, in response to the financial details, echoed what many in the area have been saying about the relationship between Piedmont Lithium and the Cherryville City Council.
“You can tell it’s a tit-for-tat thing,” Harper said. “Now we know why they were all in favor [of the ETJ request], threw their hands up, and it passed.”
His suspicions were fueled by the fact that the May 30 meeting where the council accepted Piedmont Lithium’s community agreement was open to the public, but didn’t allow for public comment.
Harper owns Stine Gear and Machine Co. near Bessemer City, a few miles from the Carpenter’s home. In May, Harper invited NC Health News to his shop to see how the operation works.
Because his business relies on precise, computer-guided movements by machines to produce made-to-order gears and other products, Harper doesn’t believe it could successfully coexist with a nearby mining operation that uses controlled explosions as part of the open-pit mining process.
“These pretty shiny parts you see here, the tolerance on this bore is to the tenth of a thousandth. That’s one inch divided into 10,000 parts,” he said. “That’s how close those bores have to be. So if you’ve got a machine that’s turning this part, and it jumps, there’s no way to hold those bores. The machines are not meant to run in unstable environments,” Harper said.
Harper has spoken with Piedmont Lithium about his concerns. He said communication stopped once the two parties reached an impasse regarding selecting an independent party to conduct an impact study.
Another primary concern is a potential drop in the water table in a county where most residents rely on wells for their drinking water. Increased traffic and poor air quality also rank high on the list.
Safety and quality-of-life concerns
During Cherryville’s May 8 City Council meeting,more than 70 people packed the town’s community building to witness the council’s unanimous vote to grant Piedmont Lithium’s Extra Territorial Jurisdiction – or ETJ – request.
Tension filled the room as stakeholders stepped to the podium and urged the council to vote against the request during the public comment period.
All eyes were on Dennis Bean, pastor of Oak Grove Missionary Baptist Church, which is across the road from the five parcels owned by Piedmont Lithium listed in the relinquishment request. Bean made several points, including reminding the council of the role of zoning.
“We came up with the idea of zoning to protect our property from something being built next to us that would destroy either our quality of living or would destroy the value of our property,” Bean said.
Bean has been a vocal critic of Piedmont Lithium’s efforts and is concerned that the mining company’s production process will jeopardize the safety of children who attend the church’s on-site childcare program. Before he sat down, Bean urged the council to support the church and deny the relinquishment request.
“I plead with you on behalf of 1,500 members at Anthony Grove Baptist Church that you protect our property, our school that has children in it,” Bean said.
“We have a preschool and a daycare with over 100 children. Would you release the ETJ for them to build a chemical plant across from Cherryville Elementary School? If you wouldn’t, why would you do it at our school?”
The relinquishment gives sole governing authority of the five land parcels (156 acres) to Gaston County instead of splitting it between the county and Cherryville. After the vote, Bean and others gathered in the parking lot and voiced displeasure about the council’s decision.
“From a public hearing standpoint, nobody was in favor of [the ETJ relinquishment],” said Bean. “Nobody.”
Looking for a new way to mine
In an emailed response to the criticism, Erin Sanders, Piedmont Lithium’s senior vice president of? corporate communications and investor relations, said the community development agreement was in response to a request by the city of Cherryville and its residents to demonstrate how the project would “directly benefit the Cherryville community.”
“These agreements are becoming more common in industrial projects,” Sanders said. “We will be required to create a development agreement with Gaston County as part of the greater rezoning process; we felt it was only fair to create a separate development agreement that would directly benefit Cherryville.”
Miller, the state’s mining specialist, said that while community mining agreements don’t always happen, he agrees that they are not uncommon.
In a 2022 report by the Nature Conservancy and the University of California, Los Angeles, researchers looked at the different types of mining extraction procedures and explored the potential environmental impacts of each. One of the takeaways is that communities and organizations should employ a mining method that is the least impactful to the environment, and that the location is a key determinant.
Open-pit mining in Gaston County will require disturbing the environment to build a conveyor system to haul lithium deposits from the extraction site, among other infrastructure needs.
But some industry insiders, including representatives from Piedmont Lithium, argue that procedures and technology have improved to the point that, when done correctly, modern mining is less intrusive than the process used to be.
Well water equals liberty
Gaston County residents are more suspicious. Mining companies’ track records for environmental stewardship have not been positive in the past, so for many locals, the company’s promises ring hollow.
Piedmont Lithium says the company will use the most up-to-date technology in the mining process, demonstrating its commitment to being good stewards of the land and good neighbors. They also say no significant vibrations from explosive charges will occur during mineral extraction.
Miller, the state mining specialist, said that no matter the improvements in mining technology and closer public scrutiny, there’s no convincing some who live near proposed mining sites.
“[NCHN] is at the point in the process where you’re going to watch people throw anything and everything, and hope something sticks.”
But people feel like they have good reason to be incredulous. Will Baldwin, Hugh and Libby Carpenter’s grandson, remembers hearing stories growing up about a local mining operation that was in production when his mother and his aunt were children. His grandparents also commented on how at certain times, on a given day, they could feel the vibrations from an explosive charge used in the mining process.
A large percentage of Gaston County residents rely on well water for drinking. And although Piedmont says it is prepared to assist homeowners in connecting to the county water supply if needed, the possibility that the water table may diminish due to the mining process is a non-starter for many who opposed the mine, including Baldwin and his grandparents.
The Carpenters have two wells on their property. One is a shallow well, which they use for drinking and cooking, the other is a deeper well that has a high concentration of iron that will stain the laundry and other surfaces, so they only use it for non-cooking purposes, unless required.
Beyond supplying people with needed drinking water, wells also seem to represent a sense of independence, a major theme in the lives of rural folks. Several have said they don’t want to trade their well water for a municipal water line and monthly water bill.
Baldwin said the area cattle, dairy and apple producers, specifically, prefer untreated well water for their production needs.
“[These farmers] require a particular type of water pressure and water quality,” he said. “[Because] of the water requirement, it’s not feasible that people are going to be OK [switching to municipal water] in the long run.”
The article is the second of two about Piedmont Lithium’s proposed mining operation in Gaston County, NC, that received funding from Kozik Environmental Justice Reporting Grants, funded by the National Press Foundation and the National Press Club Journalism Institute.