Can Gaston County embrace green energy without ruining things?

Can Gaston County embrace green energy without ruining things?

By Will Atwater

In early May, it’s possible to find fields of wheat and lavender-colored straw flowers bordering two-lane roads that wind through Gaston County. This part of Cherryville Township lies roughly 35 miles northwest of Charlotte and about 82 miles southwest of Black Mountain. 

The picturesque rural scene embodies the tagline attached to the logo on nearby Lincolnton’s website: “Near the City. Near the mountains. Near Perfect.”

Continue driving, and one quickly discovers white signs lining county roads revealing what many locals see as a threat to the pastoral lifestyle that drew them here. The message in bold, black letters reads: “Gaston County Pit Mine,” enclosed in a red circle with a line drawn through the middle.

Hugh and Libby Carpenter, both in their 80s, live on 5 acres between South Fork and Beaver Dam creeks in Cherryville Township near Lincolnton. It’s been nearly 51 years since the couple moved to the land, where they raised two daughters. 

Hugh Carpenter said the property, which has been in his family since the early 1900s, was once part of a 50-acre farm that produced wheat, oats, corn and other vegetables.

The Carpenters’ property is about 2,000 feet from one of the sites of a proposed mine to extract lithium, a vital element necessary to create everything from batteries that power cell phones to those that power motor vehicles.  

This field of wheat and straw flowers, photographed in early June, is in Gaston County, not far from the site of the proposed lithium mine. Credit: Will Atwater

They’re determined not to let the lithium mining conversation upset their lives. 

“God’s going to take care of us. If we move, we move. We don’t want it to happen, but we don’t always get our way,” said Libby Carpenter.

Many questions remain, including whether the N.C. Mining Commission will approve Piedmont Lithium’s application.

David Miller, the state’s mining specialist, sent Piedmont Lithium a 4-page letter on May 30 outlining things that need addressing in the company’s permit application. The company has 180 days to address the issues. If Piedmont Lithium receives a mining permit from the state, the final hurdle will be securing a permit from Gaston County. 

Modern-day gold rush?

The Tin-Spodumene belt is a lithium-rich mineral deposit in western North Carolina that runs southwest to northeast, into Gaston County through farm country. The deposit could play a significant role in the Biden administration’s energy plan, which races to curb CO2 emissions. That includes establishing domestic sources of lithium to support the nation’s expanding electric car fleet. 

Specifically, the Biden administration has set a goal to have 50 percent of car sales to be electric by 2030. To accomplish that goal, the U.S. needs the lithium batteries that power electric cars.

In 2022, the administration pledged $675 million to beef up the nation’s domestic Critical Materials Research Program, according to a release by the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

“We can follow through on President Biden’s clean energy commitments and make our nation more secure by increasing our ability to source, process, and manufacture critical materials right here at home,” U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said in a partial statement.

After a glance around the streets and parking lots of Cherryville Township, one may get the impression that the EV car craze has yet to catch on in the area. NC Health News saw a single Tesla parked nearby when the council voted to grant Piedmont Lithium’s relinquishment request.

Yet, nations and large multinational corporations are scouring the globe for minerals needed to fuel the emerging green economy. One unanswered question is whether rural communities such as Gaston County will help shoulder the nation’s green energy goals without damaging its natural environment or quality of life.  

All in the name of progress.

Emerging partnership

In April, North Carolina Health News reported on Piedmont Lithium’s efforts to establish a mining operation in Gaston County. At that time, Cherryville’s council members elected to postpone a vote on the mining company’s extraterritorial jurisdictional relinquishment request. 

A month later, on May 8, the council voted unanimously to grant the request. Now, the 15 parcels at the center of the request are under the county’s jurisdiction, and Cherryville no longer has any right to regulate what happens on the land. And any taxes from the land will flow to the county, not Cherryville.

Nonetheless, Cherryville will provide water infrastructure, such as water lines and municipal water service, to the mining operation for 20 years. In exchange, Piedmont Lithium proposed to contribute $1 million toward establishing a parks and recreation office and to support “specifically identified parks and recreation projects,” according to the agreement.

In the latest chapter of Piedmont Lithium’s quest to establish a mining operation in Gaston County, Cherryville’s City Council accepted this Community Development Agreement presented by Piedmont Lithium at the May 30 council work session.

After securing the first load of lithium hydroxide from the mining operation, Piedmont Lithium agrees to contribute $500,000 annually to the city of Cherryville for 20 years for a total of $10 million.

Agreement fuels distrust

Despite vocal opposition to establishing an open-pit lithium mine in Gaston County, the Cherryville council has twice cleared hurdles, which helped advance Piedmont Lithium closer to its goal and has increased distrust among locals who opposed the mine.

And in the way of small towns, where everyone knows everyone, people talk. 

Once he reviewed the agreement, Gaston County resident and business owner Brian Harper, in response to the financial details, echoed what many in the area have been saying about the relationship between Piedmont Lithium and the Cherryville City Council.

“You can tell it’s a tit-for-tat thing,” Harper said. “Now we know why they were all in favor [of the ETJ request], threw their hands up, and it passed.”

His suspicions were fueled by the fact that the May 30 meeting where the council accepted Piedmont Lithium’s community agreement was open to the public, but didn’t allow for public comment. 

Harper owns Stine Gear and Machine Co. near Bessemer City, a few miles from the Carpenter’s home. In May, Harper invited NC Health News to his shop to see how the operation works. 

Because his business relies on precise, computer-guided movements by machines to produce made-to-order gears and other products, Harper doesn’t believe it could successfully coexist with a nearby mining operation that uses controlled explosions as part of the open-pit mining process.

A collection of metal gears, in a range of sizes, are photographed resting on a brown table top.
The gears in the photograph are examples of the products produced at Stine Gear and Machine Shop, near Bessemer City and two miles from the proposed east pit mine. Owner Brian Harper is concerned that the proposed mine will disrupt his business by lowering the water table and creating ground vibrations that will cause his precision machinery to malfunction. Credit: Will Atwater

“These pretty shiny parts you see here, the tolerance on this bore is to the tenth of a thousandth. That’s one inch divided into 10,000 parts,” he said. “That’s how close those bores have to be. So if you’ve got a machine that’s turning this part, and it jumps, there’s no way to hold those bores. The machines are not meant to run in unstable environments,” Harper said.

Harper has spoken with Piedmont Lithium about his concerns. He said communication stopped once the two parties reached an impasse regarding selecting an independent party to conduct an impact study. 

Another primary concern is a potential drop in the water table in a county where most residents rely on wells for their drinking water. Increased traffic and poor air quality also rank high on the list.

Safety and quality-of-life concerns

During Cherryville’s May 8 City Council meeting,more than 70 people packed the town’s community building to witness the council’s unanimous vote to grant Piedmont Lithium’s Extra Territorial Jurisdiction – or ETJ – request. 

A man dressed in a dark suit stands at a podium, where he his writing something on a piece of paper.
Dennis Bean, the pastor of Anthony Grove Baptist, prepares to address the Cherryville City Council. Against the wishes of Bean and many who were present on June 8, the council voted unanimously to grant Piedmont Lithium’s extraterritorial jurisdiction request for five land parcels across the road from the church. Credit: Will Atwater

Tension filled the room as stakeholders stepped to the podium and urged the council to vote against the request during the public comment period. 

All eyes were on Dennis Bean, pastor of Oak Grove Missionary Baptist Church, which is across the road from the five parcels owned by Piedmont Lithium listed in the relinquishment request. Bean made several points, including reminding the council of the role of zoning.

“We came up with the idea of zoning to protect our property from something being built next to us that would destroy either our quality of living or would destroy the value of our property,” Bean said. 

Bean has been a vocal critic of Piedmont Lithium’s efforts and is concerned that the mining company’s production process will jeopardize the safety of children who attend the church’s on-site childcare program. Before he sat down, Bean urged the council to support the church and deny the relinquishment request.

“I plead with you on behalf of 1,500 members at Anthony Grove Baptist Church that you protect our property, our school that has children in it,” Bean said.

“We have a preschool and a daycare with over 100 children. Would you release the ETJ for them to build a chemical plant across from Cherryville Elementary School? If you wouldn’t, why would you do it at our school?”

The relinquishment gives sole governing authority of the five land parcels (156 acres) to Gaston County instead of splitting it between the county and Cherryville. After the vote, Bean and others gathered in the parking lot and voiced displeasure about the council’s decision.

“From a public hearing standpoint, nobody was in favor of [the ETJ relinquishment],” said Bean. “Nobody.”

Looking for a new way to mine 

In an emailed response to the criticism, Erin Sanders, Piedmont Lithium’s senior vice president of? corporate communications and investor relations, said the community development agreement was in response to a request by the city of Cherryville and its residents to demonstrate how the project would “directly benefit the Cherryville community.” 

“These agreements are becoming more common in industrial projects,” Sanders said. “We will be required to create a development agreement with Gaston County as part of the greater rezoning process; we felt it was only fair to create a separate development agreement that would directly benefit Cherryville.” 

Miller, the state’s mining specialist, said that while community mining agreements don’t always happen, he agrees that they are not uncommon.

Two women stand in front of a lithium-bearing pegmatite with the Carolina-Tin Spodumene Belt.
Emily Winter, Piedmont Lithium’s Community Relations Specialist, left, discusses the outcropping of lithium-bearing pegmatite within the Carolina-Tin Spodumene Belt, near Cherryville, as Erin Sanders, senior vice president of corporate communications and investor relations, looks on. Credit: Will Atwater

In a 2022 report by the Nature Conservancy and the University of California, Los Angeles, researchers looked at the different types of mining extraction procedures and explored the potential environmental impacts of each. One of the takeaways is that communities and organizations should employ a mining method that is the least impactful to the environment, and that the location is a key determinant.

Open-pit mining in Gaston County will require disturbing the environment to build a conveyor system to haul lithium deposits from the extraction site, among other infrastructure needs.

But some industry insiders, including representatives from Piedmont Lithium, argue that procedures and technology have improved to the point that, when done correctly, modern mining is less intrusive than the process used to be.

Well water equals liberty

 Gaston County residents are more suspicious. Mining companies’ track records for environmental stewardship have not been positive in the past, so for many locals, the company’s promises ring hollow.

Piedmont Lithium says the company will use the most up-to-date technology in the mining process, demonstrating its commitment to being good stewards of the land and good neighbors. They also say no significant vibrations from explosive charges will occur during mineral extraction. 

Miller, the state mining specialist, said that no matter the improvements in mining technology and closer public scrutiny, there’s no convincing some who live near proposed mining sites. 

“[NCHN] is at the point in the process where you’re going to watch people throw anything and everything, and hope something sticks.”

But people feel like they have good reason to be incredulous. Will Baldwin, Hugh and Libby Carpenter’s grandson, remembers hearing stories growing up about a local mining operation that was in production when his mother and his aunt were children. His grandparents also commented on how at certain times, on a given day, they could feel the vibrations from an explosive charge used in the mining process. 

A large percentage of Gaston County residents rely on well water for drinking. And although Piedmont says it is prepared to assist homeowners in connecting to the county water supply if needed, the possibility that the water table may diminish due to the mining process is a non-starter for many who opposed the mine, including Baldwin and his grandparents.

The Carpenters have two wells on their property. One is a shallow well, which they use for drinking and cooking, the other is a deeper well that has a high concentration of iron that will stain the laundry and other surfaces, so they only use it for non-cooking purposes, unless required.

Beyond supplying people with needed drinking water, wells also seem to represent a sense of independence, a major theme in the lives of rural folks. Several have said they don’t want to trade their well water for a municipal water line and monthly water bill.

Baldwin said the area cattle, dairy and apple producers, specifically, prefer untreated well water for their production needs. 

“[These farmers] require a particular type of water pressure and water quality,” he said.  “[Because] of the water requirement, it’s not feasible that people are going to be OK  [switching to municipal water] in the long run.” 

The article is the second of two about Piedmont Lithium’s proposed mining operation in Gaston County, NC, that received funding from Kozik Environmental Justice Reporting Grants, funded by the National Press Foundation and the National Press Club Journalism Institute.

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