NC DEQ is holding a public information session and hearing on Monday, Nov 15th at the Gaston County Courthouse. There will be a virtual overflow hearing on Wednesday, November 17th. Speakers must register by noon on the 15th. Written comments will be accepted through Nov 26th. Details can be found in the press release.

Background

Piedmont Lithium is planning an open-pit lithium mine project northwest of Gastonia near the Lincoln County border. The site is located on the Carolina Tin-Spodumene Belt, the largest hard rock lithium deposit in the United States. The increased demand for lithium in electric vehicles has made local extraction economically attractive for the first time since the 1980s.

Environmental Impacts

Surface Waters

In their 2019 federally approved site plan, Piedmont Lithium is permitted to fill 1,481 linear feet of perennial tributary, 4,904.5 linear feet of intermittent tributary, 0.18 acre of wetlands, 0.16 acre of impoundments, and 7.46 acres of indirect wetland impacts. The permit includes alternative project sites and pit locations. The approved plan is designed to minimize impacts to federally regulated surface waters and avoid the 100yr floodplain.

Groundwater

Because much of the ore is below the water table, Piedmont Lithium will be pumping groundwater out of the mining pits. This will lower the adjacent groundwater and is expected to dewater streams, wetlands, and nearby property wells. Groundwater levels will be monitored with a system of wells. Piedmont Lithium plans to mitigate this by providing deeper wells or alternative water for neighbors (as needed) and discharging wastewater back into the surface waters to mimic pre-mining flows.

Discharges  

The site will generate mining wastewater and stormwater runoff. Both types of discharges will likely be regulated under the general permit NCG02 which covers most types of mining. Piedmont Lithium has applied to the state for this permit. The general mining permit includes design, treatment, monitoring, and reporting requirements. The permit requirements were updated in 2020.

Other Impacts

Catawba Riverkeeper recognizes that the project will have impacts outside the scope of our expertise as a watershed advocate. Other negative externalities such as dust, traffic, and noise may impact adjacent properties. The project may also create benefits such as jobs, tax revenue, and local production of batteries for electric vehicles.

Permitting

To begin their mining operation Piedmont Lithium must have a Federal 401/404 permit, a North Carolina Mining Permit, Gaston County rezoning, and a Gaston County Special Use Permit. They secured their federal permit to alter surface waters in 2019.

In August of 2021, the company submitted its application to the state for a permit. Due to public interest, and at the request of groups such as Catawba Riverkeeper, the State agreed to schedule a public information session and hearing. This is an opportunity for concerned citizens to formally submit their comments to the state before they approve, modify, or reject the permit. We anticipate the state will likely approve the permit with modifications from the hearing. The State’s decision will likely take several months. Written comments are due by November 26th.

The parcels under consideration for mining are currently zoned residential and would need to be rezoned by the county to industrial for mining to occur. Should the County Commissioners decide to approve this project, we would recommend only doing so with additional protections for the environment. We encourage Piedmont Lithium to seek a Conditional Use Rezoning rather than an unrestricted land-use intensification to Industrial (I-3). The conditional use process will allow the county officials, public, and advocates to include additional protections for the community and environment. Gaston County Commissioners have said they will not consider rezoning until Piedmont Lithium secures their State permit.

Catawba Riverkeeper Recommendations

Due to the direct impacts to surface waters via topographic change and indirect impacts from increased impervious surface, Catawba Riverkeeper does not support large construction projects on undeveloped land. However, in addition to the rights of landowners, we recognize that our area’s population is growing and will need more homes, parking lots, landfills, etc. When development is necessary and/or unavoidable we advocate for minimal disturbed area, localized mitigation, transparent monitoring, and the application of low impact designs. 

After reviewing the State’s draft permit, Catawba Riverkeeper recommends increasing the minimum stream buffers, mandating the requested NCWRC crayfish study, and providing additional details on the reclamation and mitigation plans. We will be speaking at the hearing and submitting public comments.