Cherryville leaders table zoning request, discussion at May meeting

Cherryville leaders table zoning request, discussion at May meeting

By Will Atwater

More than 100 Gaston County residents packed the community building for the start of Monday evening’s City of Cherryville council meeting. But many headed for the exit, disappointed, when they learned that the council wouldn’t be taking up their reason for coming: lithium. 

On the City Council’s agenda had been Piedmont Lithium’s request that the city grant them more power over five parcels of land within the city limits. But the council voted unanimously to table discussion of the request, citing the absence of one of its members and the need to collect more information.

If granted, the extraterritorial jurisdiction request would mean the city would relinquish the zoning rights to those parcels and give the county sole control over zoning the area. Piedmont Lithium now owns all of the parcels, but when the proposal was submitted, the previous owners of the four other properties had given the company permission to represent them in the request, according to Monique Parker, Piedmont Lithium’s vice president of health, safety and environment.

Parker, who was present Monday night, said in an earlier interview that the company wants to simplify the mining permit process.

“We have to go through rezoning once the mining permit is received, and because of the rezoning, if we have two different districts that control … the properties, we would have to go through each of those entities,” she said. 

There are 1,548 acres in the mine’s permanent boundary, and five of the parcels (totaling 137 acres or 9 percent) making up that acreage are governed by Cherryville. The rest are controlled by the county. Parker said that the land in question is “intended to host the rail spur that would connect to the existing CSX rail line and offer a significant buffer to the neighboring parcels.

“In order to make the process more consistent and have one body to go to from a rezoning perspective, we thought it would be best to have Cherryville relinquish those five parcels,” Parker added.

Arriving at this moment

Piedmont Lithium’s request and its efforts to establish a lithium mine are timely. Just this week,  the Biden administration set a goal to significantly cut the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions by reducing the number of gasoline-operated vehicles on the roads and replacing them with electric cars and trucks by model year 2027. To make that happen, the EPA announced newly proposed emission reduction standards for automobiles on April 12.

All of that will require more battery power, hence the need for more lithium — the main component used to produce batteries for electric vehicles. 

And Gaston County has more lithium.

“The new proposed emissions standards for light-, medium-, and heavy-duty vehicles for model year (MY) 2027 and beyond would significantly reduce climate and other harmful air pollution, unlocking significant benefits for public health, especially in communities that have borne the greatest burden of poor air quality,” an EPA news release read. 

EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said that the proposed standards illustrate the Biden administration’s commitment to addressing “air and climate pollution.”

Regan points to the fact that more electric car manufacturing facilities are opening in the U.S. as a sign that the administration’s proposed emission standards are achievable.

Water, air pollution concerns

Piedmont Lithium’s request to answer to only one jurisdiction was introduced for public discussion during last month’s council meeting, and many county residents spoke out against it. They also spoke out against the company’s larger initiative, which is to mine lithium from a natural deposit known as the Tin-Spodumene Belt, which runs through the Gaston County area. 

Parker estimates that there is approximately 12.5 years’ worth of lithium available where Piedmont Lithium wants to mine.

However, one of the biggest concerns shared by Gaston County residents opposed to the zoning request and mining operation is its potential impact on the groundwater supply. Many Gaston County residents rely on well water.rlotte

“Groundwater is not an unlimited resource, even if municipal water lines are installed,” Cherryville Township resident Lisa Baldwin said during last month’s city council meeting. “The drought-prone area cannot support the amount of water needed for homes, farms, businesses and the mine.”

Outside, near the parking lot after Monday’s council meeting, small business owner and Gaston resident Brian Harper shared Baldwin’s concern that the mine will have a negative impact on the local water table.

“We’re on wells. We don’t have city water,” Harper said. “The Town of Cherryville has city water, but out in Gaston County, we don’t have city water. We’re going to lose our water.”

The sign captures the feelings of many Gaston County residents, who fear that Piedmont Lithium’s proposed mining operation will destroy the local environment. Credit: Will Atwater

Harper is the owner of Stine Gear, a precision machine shop, and is worried that vibrations caused by mining operations would put him out of business. On his property, which he says is only 100 yards from the entrance of the proposed East Pit, Harper makes gears and transmission components. The work requires precision down to thousandths of an inch, which he says will be impossible to achieve once Piedmont Lithium blasts rock and trucks start rumbling by on a regular basis.

Jason Odom spoke with Harper after the meeting and said he plans to grow hops for the beer industry on recently purchased land. Odom also worries about how mining might affect his water supply and about placing a mining operation in the community.

“What do you think when somebody says mine? Do you think of residential? Do you think of churches, schools, agriculture? You don’t,” he said.

Harper chimed in about the area’s population density.

“In our area, there’s 176 people per square mile,” he said, claiming that other mining areas in the U.S. are much less populated. 

“That’s a big-time difference,” Harper said.

Being a responsible neighbor

Parker says she understands that Gaston residents are concerned about having a lithium mine in their community, and she wants to make sure people know that Piedmont Lithium is going to be a good neighbor and an economic engine for the community.

“Over 400 jobs are going to come to the area, [and] that will boost the economy as a whole,” she said. [Mining is] going to bring people, it’s going to bring other businesses, it’s going to bring money to the area, and those things are going to be beneficial for the community as a whole.”

Parker also said that the company will employ a closed conveyor system to transport mined lithium from the extraction point, which reduces the need to have trucks that create dust and added noise rumbling through the area. She said that the company continues to speak with local residents about water.

“In almost every home we go to, we talk about water,” she said. “We’ve done an extensive amount of work on that point, not just because we want to have answers for the community. We want to have answers for ourselves, because at the end of the day, as an operation, we have to manage the water.”

In an email, Parker said that the mining process will not produce a lot of waste. The rock that’s left over after the lithium and other minerals such as mica, feldspar and quartz have been extracted is expected to be used to backfill the pits as part of the reclamation process.

As Harper and Odom headed toward their vehicles in the community building lot full of gasoline and diesel-powered vehicles, Harper responded to a question about the popularity of electric cars in the area.

“This is not the big-time city of Charlotte or Raleigh-Durham,” he said. “I dare to say, in my lifetime, you will never see me driving an electric vehicle.The power that’s needed in farming and everything like that, the EV cannot produce the torque needed for the machines.”

Cherryville’s next city council meeting will be on May 8, at 6 p.m. in the Cherryville Community Building at 106 S. Jacob St.

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