Moving Towards More Electric Vehicles Gets All the Rave; What About Mining Lithium? 

Moving Towards More Electric Vehicles Gets All the Rave; What About Mining Lithium? 

We’ve all seen it: countries or cities trying their best to start switching to anything that doesn’t use fossil fuels. However, as the demand for batteries grows, so does that of lithium and other elements to make batteries. 

The thing is, other than the unintentional push for more unethical mining in some places around the world, those minerals and elements sometimes exist in protected areas. 

For instance, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Amargosa Conservancy had filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Land Management.  

The lawsuit challenged the agencies’ approval of mineral drilling near the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. 

There is a Canadian mining exploration company who proposed drilling 30 boreholes on public lands to conduct exploration for a possible lithium mine. 

Environmentalists opposed its proposal because some of the proposed drill sites are less than 2,000 feet from springs in the refuge that form critical habitat for endangered pupfish as well as other endangered and endemic species. 

Executive director of the Amargosa Conservancy Mason Voehl said that it didn’t really matter if the company wanted to get lithium or not. 

“The proposed mining activity is simply too close to an area of remarkable biodiverse importance. A protected refuge home to over 25 species that live nowhere else,” Voehl said.  

“We can’t let the end-use of that mineral dictate how we conduct our environmental analysis. And we can’t let that pressure to extract that mineral sort of overshadow the importance of the impact it could have on the adjacent communities and the refuges in particular,” Voehl went on. 

The richness of Ash Meadows 

Ash Meadows is a lush oasis in the Mojave Desert where springs naturally form expansive wetlands. It is a haven for 25 species of fish, plants, insects and snails that are found nowhere else on earth. Twelve of those species are still under the protection of the Endangered Species Act. 

With the rise of more electric vehicles, mining companies have been in need of more lithium. It just so happens that Nevada has vast supplies of lithium. 

According to Voehl, Nevada is now the epicenter of focus for creating that domestic supply of lithium. To Voehl, that fact might have influenced the mining company’s proposal. 

While the environmentalists acknowledge that lithium is an important mineral in the transition to a de-carbonized energy economy, they believe that the urgency for a domestic supply can’t run roughshod over the environment. 

Voehl added that there was a dire need to set certain areas out of bounds for mining, whatever the potential for lithium is. 

In their lawsuit, Amargosa Conservancy and the Center stated that the Bureau’s approval of the project would result in “unnecessary and undue degradation” of public lands resources which may further threaten endangered species. 

In a statement, Patrick Donnelly, Great Basin director at the Center for Biological Diversity, echoed the environmentalists’ view toward mining.  

“Some places have to be off-limits to resource extraction, and Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge is at the top of the list. We’re taking this action to save Ash Meadows,” Donnelly said. 


Ash Meadows Crystal Spring


Lithium in North America 

This mineral is dubbed the new “gold rush” and now many want to get their hands on it, from individuals to companies. The International Energy Agency has projected that by 2040, the world will need at least 1.1 million metric tons of lithium annually, more than ten times what it currently produces. 

Even though there are many areas with potential lithium sources, there’s only one operational lithium mine and one operational rare earth element mine in the US. 

And although there’s an operational mine, the materials have to be processed somewhere else—currently China—because the US doesn’t have processing facilities for now. 

Therefore, so far, the country is still dependent on other countries for the materials essential for clean energy technologies. 

This doesn’t stop everybody from searching, though.  

And sometimes, some get incredibly lucky, like the Freemans from Maine who, during gem searching, stumbled across one of the only hard-rock sources of lithium in the US. 

Since the lithium is found in hard rock, it means that the mineral is higher-quality and faster to process than that mined from brine. 

However, Maine is not having it. 

“No more mines!” 

Communities, not just environmentalists, in the US seem to be skeptical about mining projects.  

It’s not without good reasons, though, since they’ve seen a lot of examples of companies coming into a community, mining until doing so becomes too expensive, then leaving a polluted site for someone else to clean up. 

Thus far, there are more than 50,000 abandoned mines in the western US alone. Environmentalists argue that 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. 

An environmental group called Earthworks has found that 76% of mining companies in the U.S. polluted groundwater after saying they wouldn’t. 

Jan Morrill who studies mining at the group said, “All mines pollute in one way or another, and mines are really bad at predicting how much they’re going to pollute.” 

Earthworks has also found that modern mines which adhere to the latest US standards still pollute. This is saying something, since the country has a more rigorous regulatory environment than many other countries, and that some domestic mines have the support of some environmentalists. 

Geologists say it’s pretty safe 

The Freemans liken tthe excavation of the minerals to quarrying for granite or limestone, which Maine has done for a long time. 

Since the lithium is within a rock, they believe that their mine wouldn’t pollute the surrounding land and water.  

And according to geologists, the Freemans are not wrong. Their proposal wouldn’t be as disruptive as other proposed mines across the country. Other metals like silver and zinc can create sulfuric acid when exposed to air and water, polluting waterways for decades. 

In contrast, the chemical composition of the crystals and the rocks around them won’t let them dissolve into dangerous acids when exposed to air and water. It’s because the crystals have been naturally exposed to air and water for hundreds of millions of years and not broken down. 

Moreover, the crystals can be shipped out of state in large chunks for processing, so there would be no chemical ponds or tailings. 

Nonetheless, some Mainers don’t strongly oppose the mining project. While they still aren’t too thrilled, they know that humanity can’t run from it forever. 

Myles Felch, curator at the Maine Mineral and Gem Museum, said, “I love the place where I grew up and I wouldn’t want anything to ever happen to it.”  

Felch added that looking ahead, “you need mineral resources. Most people were probably texting ‘stop the mine’ with a nickel cobalt battery in their phones.” 


Ash Meadows in the sunset


But will Ash Meadows be safe? 


The good news is, the BLM won’t go through with the lithium mining project near Ash Meadows. 

In a letter, the Bureau concluded that the proposed operations could potentially disturb localized groundwaters that supply the connected surface waters associated with threatened and endangered species in local springs in the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. 

It also stated that the United States Fish and Wildlife Service has expressed concern about potential impacts to water quality as a result from the exploration drilling. The USFWS specifically highlighted the proximity of the project to Fairbanks, Rogers and Longstreet springs. 

Environmentalists, without a doubt, are happy about this. They particularly applauded BLM’s quick action.  

“Those drill rigs were supposed to show up next week. And then the reaction from the community was so overwhelming that BLM felt compelled to act,” Donnelly said. “Sometimes these fights play out over months and years, and it can be a real slog.” 

Despite this news, however, the lithium battles won’t end any time soon. 

According to Donnelly, the political overtones of lithium mining right now are intense.  

“I’ve documented 122 lithium projects in the Western United States. Some of them are in acceptable places, but some are very unacceptable. I don’t think we’ve seen the end of conflict over lithium in the American West,” Donnelly said. 



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