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Gaston mine would supply needed lithium, but neighbors fight it

102622 Locke Bell mine opponent.JPG
David Boraks
Locke Bell refused to sell his land in northern Gaston County to Piedmont Lithium. He says he wants it eventually to become a county park.

There's a race on to mine lithium in the U.S. for electric vehicle batteries. It's part of the fight to slow global warming — and to some people a matter of national security. But to neighbors, a proposed mine in Gaston County is an impending environmental disaster.

Piedmont Lithium wants to build a mine and processing operation on 1,500 acres in northern Gaston County, about 30 miles west of Charlotte. Plans call for four open-pit mines 500 feet deep. That means tearing down old and new houses, digging up farm fields and cutting down woods.

Locke Bell owns 120 acres near the mine's planned South Pit.

"Relative to the proposed mine, I have 4,160 feet of common boundary," he said as he led a tour of his land two weeks ago.

102622 No pit mine sign Whitesides Rd.JPG
David Boraks
Many signs like this are posted on roads around Piedmont Lithium's proposed mine site.

Bell is a former district attorney and has been following Piedmont's plans since 2017 when the company first approached him about mining on his land. He told them no after seeing a detailed map of the mine.

"And suddenly, I saw these massive mines … open pits. We have enough of that around here that's toxic already," he said.

He's referring to old lithium mines nearby that closed in the 1980s and 1990s and are now contaminated with arsenic, which occurs naturally in the earth here.

A few miles away on the other side of the mine site, Warren Snowdon has similar concerns. His family's old farm is just across a stream, about 600 yards from the planned East Pit. He's helping to lead an opposition group called Stop Piedmont Lithium.

"Our issue is on every front: It's water. It's air. It's light pollution. It's noise. It's traffic. Give us a wind farm. Give us a solar farm," Snowdon said.

102922 Warren Snowdon and Finn.JPG
David Boraks
Warren Snowdon and his dog Finn walk on a trail on his family's farm near the Piedmont Lithium mine site. The mine's east pit would be across a creek near one edge of the property.

Snowdon, Bell and hundreds of other property owners have been vocal opponents. They've spoken out at public meetings and posted "no pit mine" yard signs on roads near the site.

But about 120 others have willingly sold or agreed to sell to the mine, at generous prices. Calvin Hastings said the company first approached him just three months after he built a new house on 30 acres of family land.

"Most of my neighbors that's joining my land, I think, have reached agreement with Piedmont lithium, with the exception of maybe one. And I think most of them came out with fair deals and they seem pretty happy with the deal that they got from 'em," Hastings said.

Piedmont paid Hastings $1.75 million for the main part of his land, plus more for the rest, according to county land records. Despite selling, he says he's "sentimental" about leaving land his family had owned for more than a hundred years. He now lives about a dozen miles away.

2021 Piedmont Lithium locator map.jpg
Piedmont Lithium
Map shows the location of the Carolina Tin-Spodumene Belt (green) and Piedmont Lithium's planned mine site.

Both former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden have made it a priority to develop U.S. sources of lithium and other key minerals. U.S. Senator Thom Tillis has said he supports Piedmont Lithium's proposed mine — as long as it's done in an environmentally responsible way. At the company's headquarters in August, he said the U.S. needs its own sources of lithium to counter China, the world leader in lithium processing.

"They (China) intend to make sure that the Western world is dependent upon them for lithium, for tantalum, for rare earth minerals, so that they can literally beat us by never firing a shot," Tillis said.

A 50-50 chance of local approval?

But political support doesn't necessarily extend to the local level. Chad Brown is chair of the Gaston County Commission, which will have to approve a rezoning for the mine.

"With the information I have right now, I probably would not call for a vote on this, I would have to have tons of more information just for the environmental side, and as far as air quality, water quality, different things like that," Brown said.

The commission adopted a 60-day moratorium last year so it could update its zoning rules to allow a mine. The ordinance has some teeth — it limits blasting and truck traffic, says Brown. But he's not sure Piedmont will be able to get the electricity and water it needs.

"I think right now, you're still at 50-50, just for the simple fact of it's a long way out," he said.

Piedmont is negotiating with Gastonia and Cherryville in hopes of connecting to their water and sewer systems and also plans to draw water from the property. A spokeswoman said the company doesn't expect to create "significant issues" with nearby wells. But she says they'll work with neighbors to ensure their access to water.

Piedmont Lithium
Keith Phillips, CEO of Piedmont Lithium

Meanwhile, Piedmont Lithium also needs critical state approvals, including air and mining permits. Both are delayed while the company responds to requests for more information. Still, Piedmont Lithium's CEO Keith Phillips is optimistic.

"So the permitting process is more involved, and it will take longer. And our plan, our hope, is that we'll be in production in Carolina in 2026, and will be fully permitted and approved and funded sometime in 2024," Phillips said.

While it pursues that goal, the company is building a lithium processing plant in Tennessee, with help from a $141.7 million federal grant. And it's counting on mines in Quebec and Ghana to supply lithium ore.

Some investors are betting against the company. Piedmont's stock is publicly traded and has attracted growing interest over the past year from short sellers, who bet that a stock will lose value. They worry about the company's lack of mining experience, among other things. But shares are currently trading over $60 a share — nearly double their low in July.

Meanwhile, Piedmont is not the only company contemplating lithium mining in Gaston County. Charlotte-based Albemarle Corp. is hoping to revive lithium mining at a closed pit in Kings Mountain. Albemarle also is planning a new processing plant there, with a $149.7 million grant through the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

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