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Piedmont Lithium still facing intense skepticism over new Gaston County mine

Gaston County Commission chair Chad Brown questions Piedmont Lithium officials during the commission's work session Tuesday night.
David Boraks
Gaston County Commission chair Chad Brown questions Piedmont Lithium officials during the commission's work session Tuesday night.

Piedmont Lithium officials faced tough questions from Gaston County commissioners Tuesday night during the first public meeting in two years about the company's plans for a mine and processing plant.

Little has changed since 2021 when Piedmont Lithium first presented commissioners with its plan for the mine and processing operation on more than 3,000 acres near Cherryville. The $1.2 billion project still lacks key approvals. And the company still faces skepticism — from both commissioners and residents, who packed the meeting wearing red shirts.

"We recognize that there were a lot of questions that we couldn't answer in 2021, and perhaps that we didn't communicate properly prior to that. We've been working hard to correct those errors," said Erin Sanders, Piedmont's communications director.

She and colleagues answered questions about the mine's safety, wastewater treatment, property values, blasting, environmental damage, and restoration plans once the mine closes.

A contractor for Piedmont Lithium drilled for core samples as the company tested for lithium deposits in northern Gaston County.
David Boraks
A contractor for Piedmont Lithium drilled for core samples as the company tested for lithium deposits in northern Gaston County in 2019.

But commissioners had more questions. Chair Chad Brown complained that Piedmont’s CEO was absent and said the company has not been transparent.

"This process today, like I stated from the very first time you came, could still possibly be the worst rollout I've ever seen for an economic development. Look at all these people out here in this crowd," he said.

Fellow commissioner Bob Hovis added that commissioners' questions reflect community concerns.

"These people have very valid concerns. And it's our responsibility as their elected officials to address and mitigate those as much as possible. And that's the reason for our questions," he said.

Piedmont still needs a state mining permit. And it has not yet submitted a formal application for the county rezoning. The company says it hopes to begin construction in 2025 and start shipping lithium in 2027.

Questions and answers

Piedmont executives opened with a presentation that included answers to a series of questions commissioners gave them in advance. Commissioners followed with an hour of additional questions, and then allowed comments from 10 residents — all of whom said they opposed the project.

"I think I have more questions and I'm more concerned and more confused tonight than I was before I got here," said Warren Snowdon, who owns property bordering one of the four planned open-pit mines. Snowdon has helped lead opposition to the project with the group Stop Piedmont Lithium.

"How are they going to protect the citizens? They don't have a North Carolina mining permit. They don't have the proper zoning, no air (quality) permit, no site plan approval, and they are years away from having the necessary utilities, electric and gas to service the site," Snowdon said.

Piedmont officials offered some new information as they answered questions Tuesday, including:

  • Utilities: Piedmont has promised to pay for construction of new water lines needed to serve the site and neighbors, if needed. That includes bringing municipal water from Cherryville and tying into a Gastonia municipal wastewater treatment plant. 
  • Private wells: At least 10 homes will lose their wells as the water table shrinks around the mine.  Sanders told commissioners: "If a well runs dry on one of our neighbors' properties due to the project, we will either drill a new well, drilling deeper, or we'll connect the home to municipal water." 
  • Arsenic: Some residents are worried that the mine will produce arsenic. "I think many people are very aware there's naturally occurring arsenic in the groundwater around us today in Gaston County and other neighboring counties. That naturally occurring arsenic comes from some of the rock, the soil in the groundwater, due to volcanic rock activity in that region. So it's not there, because we're mining it," said Monique Parker, Piedmont's head of Safety, Environment and Health. She said water from the mine would be pumped into sedimentation ponds and treated as needed. 
  • Blasting: Gaston County passed rules two years ago limiting blasting to daytime. But some residents remain worried about the noise and other impacts. Officials said the company would stay within federal standards for blasting, which would prevent structural damage. Piedmont's blasting consultant, Stuart Brashear of Austin Powder Co., said people up to 3,000 feet from the blasting site would likely feel minor impacts from once- or twice-daily blasts that will last no more than a few seconds. "The sounds are very different from fireworks," he said. "It's just putting basically a pressure wave through the air. It is like a gust of wind more than anything. It's barely audible."  He noted that the company will only be mining one pit at a time, and that some people may not even notice the blasts. He said the company would study the potential effects on each property touching the mine site and share it with homeowners. 
  • The mine's lifespan: Piedmont says federal securities rules governing mining require it to be conservative, so it estimates there's enough lithium in the mine to last 11.5 years.  But they also note that the company's preliminary studies indicate there's a lot more of the mineral. "We know that there's double that amount of ore in the ground versus what we've been able to allocate for this 11.5 years, and because of that there is a potential that this lifespan would extend," Parker said. 
  • Decommissioning: Piedmont says it will mine one 500-foot pit at a time and backfill each with waste rock from the other pits. When the mine stops producing, three will be filled in and covered while the fourth will be filled with water. The lithium processing plant will operate for longer, after this mine is expended. State law requires the company to put up a $1 million bond to ensure the site is cleaned up. Sanders acknowledged that isn't a lot of money, and said the company would be willing to increase the bond. 
  • Community development agreement: Sanders said the company hopes to negotiate a "community development agreement" with county officials. It would include a variety of commitments, such as an annual payment to Gaston County, limits to future mining, a larger decommissioning bond, and ensuring that residents whose wells are ruined will get municipal water.  

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