Gaston County neighbors push back on proposed lithium mine

The plan is to develop America’s largest lithium business in North Carolina.
Published: Jul. 21, 2021 at 6:54 PM EDT
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GASTON COUNTY, N.C. (WBTV) - Dozens of citizens in Gaston County are pushing back on a proposed mining operation to produce lithium hydroxide.

Piedmont Lithium is a newly formed company headquartered in Belmont, N.C. President and CEO of Piedmont Lithium Keith D. Phillips says they have been developing plans to mine minerals and produce chemicals needed to make lithium batteries in North Carolina for about four years. Lithium batteries are used to power electric cars. Their plan is to develop America’s largest lithium business in North Carolina.

Piedmont Lithium plans to operate a quarry, concentrate plant, and chemical plant on about 3,000 acres of land in Gaston County, according to a company spokesperson. The property is bordered by Hephzibah Church Road, Will Kiser Road, and Aderholdt Road.

“We’re going to do it all here in Gaston County like it was 20 plus years ago,” Phillips said at a Tuesday night Gaston County Board of County Commissioners work session.

According to Phillips, most of the world’s lithium came from North Carolina between the 1950s and 1990s until operations were moved overseas. In today’s market, Phillips says Australia mines the most spodumene, the mineral used to make lithium hydroxide. China then converts spodumene into lithium hydroxide to be used in lithium batteries.

Piedmont Lithium plans to mine and convert the mineral to lithium hydroxide at one site in Gaston County.

“This will be the only site in the world where people mine spodumene concentrate and produce it and convert it to lithium chemicals on the same site,” Phillips said.

Piedmont Lithium estimates the company will bring 500 jobs to the area that average $90,000 in compensation and benefits. Phillips expects their operations to bring other industries to the area too.

“If we’re producing lithium hydroxide in North Carolina, battery plants, maybe even electric car plants are going to come here,” Phillips said.

Dozens of Gaston County residents voiced their concerns over the proposed plant at a Gaston County Board of County Commissioners work session Tuesday night. Many citizens who live near the proposed site are concerned about the potential environmental impact it could have on the area.

“About 2800 feet of our property line adjoins the east pit,” Warren Snowden said. “So, we have a lot of concerns and we are in the uncomfortable position that there are a lot of unknowns.”

“Open-pit mining will forever alter that landscape,” Libby Carpenter said.

“Even when they are within the guidelines, they don’t always prevent issues,” Linda Bennett said. “We’ve seen that with the Gaston County landfill. My family has a farm right next to the Gaston County landfill. It has affected their water quality.”

In a presentation to the Board of County Commissioners, Piedmont Lithium executives addressed some of the public’s environmental concerns.

The company says they will not discharge wastewater into public water sources. Instead, they plan to have an industrial wastewater pre-treatment facility on site. The company says they also plan to apply for a sewer permit so they can connect to wastewater treatment facilities in the region after the wastewater is treated internally.

“We will not have a wastewater discharge from those operations to public waters. Not to groundwater, not to Beaver Dam Creek, not to Little Beaver Dam Creek, or another creek or stream in the region,” a Piedmont Lithium executive said.

To mitigate traffic, noise, and dust, Piedmont Lithium says they are investing $63 million in an electric conveyer belt that will transport material from the quarry to the concentrate and chemical plants, instead of using mining trucks. They expect employees going to the plant to account for most of the traffic in the area.

“Crushing in the quarry and bringing the material up in electric conveyors, which is quiet and dust-free,” Phillips explains. “Relative to what we otherwise would have done and is done in most parts of the world which is lots and lots of trucks going up and down ramps. Which is noisy, dusty, and there is no avoiding it.”

Piedmont Lithium says the electric conveyer belt, concentrate plant, and chemical plant will be indoors. A spokesperson for the company says the quarry will be the only portion of the operation that is outdoors.

“We don’t intend to have open stockpiles on our site. That can generate wind-blown dust,” A Piedmont Lithium Executive said Tuesday.

In terms of blasting in the quarry, Piedmont Lithium says noise from quarries is highly regulated by the state and they will comply with state regulations.

Piedmont Lithium says when minerals are depleted from the property, they will reclaim the mining pits, remove roads, and take down structures that are no longer in service. They say they will replace topsoil and plant native plants.

Despite the company’s mitigation efforts, many citizens living nearby are not convinced a lithium business will be free of harm.

“I don’t think that what they’re saying, I don’t think we can trust them,” Aderholt Road resident Will Baldwin said. “Developmental pressure in the southeast is a huge issue and this is an important historic farming area. There is undisturbed forest and wetlands that they would be destroying, and we would never get back. And those provide priceless economic services to us.”

“They think it’s going to happen because lithium is the sacred cow,” Baldwin said. “But it doesn’t have to be here. This is a historical footnote in terms of lithium production. They haven’t had an active mine here in almost 40 years. And what they want to do is so much bigger than before.”

WBTV contacted Piedmont Lithium to ask some follow-up questions after the board meeting Tuesday. When asked if the company feels confident the mitigation efforts they are taking will be enough to protect the environment and history of Gaston County, a spokesperson responded with the following statement:

“We are following permitting and regulations to the letter that are in and of themselves designed to ensure that we have minimal environmental impact.”

Piedmont Lithium plans to apply for a mining permit within the state of North Carolina in August. To move forward, the company will also need the Gaston County Board of County Commissioners to rezone the property to support mining. Some areas are zoned for agriculture and residential needs.

Already, Piedmont Lithium says they have come to 140 agreements with property owners in the area. They say they have invested more than $27 million in properties so far.

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