Piedmont Lithium presents Gaston County mining plans, neighbors voice concerns

GASTON COUNTY, N.C. — A battery company that wants to mine lithium in northern Gaston County presented its plan to county commissioners on Tuesday night.

Piedmont Lithium would bring hundreds of jobs to the area, but some are concerned about the long-term impact the mining might have, and voiced those concerns at the meeting.

Piedmont Lithium leaders said the project will make Gaston County the U.S. leader in the electric vehicle supply chain. County commissioners and residents have big questions about it, and it still has a long way to go.

“This is the beginning from our perspective. This is day one,” Piedmont Lithium CEO Keith Phillips said. “July 20, 2021.”

From 1950 to the 1990s, pretty much all the world’s lithium came from Gaston County, according to Phillips. Now it’s mined in Australia and shipped to China to be converted. Phillips told Gaston County commissioners he wants to change that.

“We’re going to do it all here in Gaston County like it was 20-plus years ago,” he said.

In his vision, hundreds of northwest Gaston County acres will be home to the only spot in the world where people mine spodumene concentrate. It will then be converted to lithium chemicals on-site. The demand for lithium resources is skyrocketing, with car companies wanting long-lasting batteries for electric vehicles. Phillips said the $840 million project will create hundreds of good-paying jobs and position Gaston County to land more businesses.

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

Before any of that happens, many Gaston County residents want commissioners to dig a little deeper. Dozens of people wearing red packed the courthouse Tuesday to express concerns about the project and the changes to the environment needed to make it happen.

“They are willing to destroy people’s lives, homes and one of the most peaceful areas in Gaston County for rechargeable batteries,” resident Jessica Leonharolt said.

Of the 26 people who spoke out against the project, nearly all worried about how it will impact their quality of life.

“I challenge the board to really think about the impacts of a large-scale mining operation in Gaston County,” resident Warren Snowdon said.

The board will have plenty of time to think about the project. Piedmont Lithium must file a rezoning petition. The company also needs a permit from the state to mine.

It will be a long process with plenty of opposition. The company and some residents are asking leaders to keep an open mind.

“I see the potential of a project like this, and I am going to embrace it,” resident Kevin Gee said.

Another concern from residents is traffic. The company claims it is investing $63 million to replace mine trucks with an electric conveyor system.

Piedmont Lithium said blasting would take place during regularly scheduled times.

“That’s a risk we really can’t afford in this region,” resident Billy Baldwin told Channel 9 before the meeting.

Baldwin’s family has owned land in the area since the 1700s, and he said the drilling -- even to help power cars that run without gas -- isn’t worth it.

“They say they are bringing 500 jobs, but at what cost? They are threatening farms and homes,” Baldwin said.

He is leading a petition drive to block the lithium mining.

“Obviously, if you are the neighbor, you don’t want a mine beside your house,” said Catawba River Keeper Brandon Jones.

Jones said he worries that the company will have to fill in wetlands and streams that could drain area waterways if there is a drought.

“They will be pumping the ground water back up and trying to fill those streams,” Jones told Channel 9.

He wants the county to closely monitor any work done. He said, despite his concerns, Piedmont Lithium has been upfront, sharing all of their environmental plans.

Piedmont Lithium representatives told Channel 9 they plan to move forward, protecting the environment and community while creating jobs and the source to power new technology.

(WATCH BELOW: Residents push back as Lithium Piedmont aims to expand mining plans in Gaston County)