In a sprawling open-air mine 550 kilometers northwest of Montreal, 100-ton trucks cruise the uphill roads preparing for the mine’s opening.
The chalk-white veins of these rocks contain metals, including one of the world’s most sought-after minerals: lithium, a key ingredient in electric car batteries.
When production at the La Corne Lithium Mine, Que.
Sayona Quebec, which bought the mine in 2021, has already employed about 80 full-time workers, and the mayor of the neighboring community of Amos says there will certainly be secondary economic benefits for residents.
“As a Quebecer, I’m proud,” said Guy Laliberté, CEO of Sayona Quebec. “Knowing that this lithium is (will have been) produced using green energy, hydroelectric power… in some very strict and strict environmental regulations.”
But others are more skeptical. In the last 10 years, the lithium mine has changed hands four times, been responsible for serious and harmful oil spills, and filed for bankruptcy protection twice – despite a $110 million investment by the provincial government.
Meanwhile, environmental groups and members of Long Point First Nation have commented on Sayona’s other proposed lithium projects in the region, saying the projects could threaten the water and livelihoods of the Anishinabeg.
For this reason, some experts say that while lithium mining is important, it shouldn’t be seen as a climate change miracle cure just because it’s fueling the electric vehicle industry.
“Mining is associated with major damage, both to communities and to ecosystems,” said Teresa Kramarz, a mining expert at the University of Toronto.
A hot resource alongside Canada’s purest water
Canada does not currently produce lithium, but has about 2.5 percent of the world’s lithium known lithium deposits.
That’s a small blip on the radar compared to lithium powerhouse countries like Bolivia, Australia, Chile and Argentina, while China controls most of the world’s processing capacity. Still, Canadian lawmakers have signaled they are want to mine what they can.
As gasoline car consumers descend, demand for lithium has outstripped supply. An expert’s analysis says we need to add at least 300 more mines worldwide to meet current demand.
“We have lithium in Quebec and it’s important to capitalize on it,” Quebec Premier François Legault told reporters in September.
But Olivier Pitre, director of SÉSAT, a group that monitors groundwater in Quebec’s Abitibi-Témiscamingue region, says mining activity in the region could be impacting some of North America’s cleanest waters.
Abitibi-Témiscamingue is home to an 8,000-year-old ridge of layered sand and gravel that naturally filters rain and snow. The result is water so pure that the Eska water company is based in the region.
Pitre says that when you dig a large hole — the mine or multiple mines — groundwater is pulled to the bottom of the hole by gravity. As a result, there is a risk that the local groundwater level will lose pressure and streams, lakes and rivers will dry up.
There is growing skepticism in the community about the mine’s operation, Pitre said.
“There’s this general feeling that there’s something very wrong with this mine, probably a few things that are very wrong,” he said.
Past problems, future plans
When the La Corne site first passed its feasibility study to produce lithium in 2011, the local mayor said it was like “winning the lottery.” But since then, the record has been rocky at best.
In 2014, the site was touted as “on track to become the world’s fourth-largest lithium producer,” according to then-owner Canada Lithium’s head. The mine closed just over a year later and filed for bankruptcy protection.
While the mine operated under previous ownership, at least two major environmental pollutants were reported in the media. In the first case, millions of liters of waste water were spilled when a tank ruptured. In another incident, a pipe containing tailings burst, leaking nearly 500,000 liters of mining waste.
In 2016, a Chinese investment company bought the mine. Two years later, Chinese battery giant CATL bought it, but filed for bankruptcy protection two years later.
Laliberté says he’s aware of previous problems, but says the mine has met all of Quebec’s environmental regulations and they conduct regular tests to monitor their site.
He also has a plan to increase the mine’s financial viability. Not only are they benefiting from the increased demand for lithium, but they’re also investing significant money — about $100 million — in refurbishing the equipment.
He also plans to increase revenue by creating a cluster of lithium mines in the region. Sayona’s other two mining projects, called Authier and Tansim, are in earlier stages of development, but if they become operational mines, their ore will be transported tens of kilometers to La Corne for concentration.
Sébastien D’Astous, the mayor of Amos, a town of 13,000 next to La Corne, wants the lithium mined in Quebec to be processed in Quebec. If all goes according to Laliberté’s plan, by 2025 the La Corne plant could be the first in North America to achieve this crucial step.
“We’re the best place in the world to work with these types of minerals,” said D’Astous. “The goal is to create a lithium cluster here and ensure that the economy is built on top of that cluster.”
No such refinery exists in Canada. For now, the lithium extracted from La Corne will be shipped overseas to be processed into either lithium carbonate or hydroxide and then sold to manufacturers.
“Exploitation and development in our backyard”
Neither Tansim nor Authier will open any time soon: Authier has to go through environmental hearings next summer and Tansim is still at an exploratory stage.
Former Anishinabeg chief Steeve Mathias said his Long Point First Nation community is particularly concerned about the proposed Tansim project. It is close to Lac Simard, which Mathias says is the heart of the community and the site of many traditional practices, including hunting, fishing, medicinal plant harvesting and healing ceremonies.
“People are not willing to support this kind of exploitation and development in our backyard,” he said.
Long Point First Nation has applied for state funding to conduct its own study on the potential environmental impact of Sayona’s activities. So far, says Mathias, they have not received an answer.
Several kilometers outside of Val-d’Or — a town in the Abitibi-Témiscamingue region so mineral-rich its name actually means “the golden valley” — Rodrigue Turgeon points to an empty field, but for some water and blue-grey Mud.
This mud – mining tailings from an old gold mine – looks unnatural even in November’s brownish decay.
Turgeon, a spokesman for the group MiningWatch Canada, urges Canadians to look at the tailings and understand that more lithium means more mines. He wants Canadians to ask themselves if it’s a good idea to replace mining of one resource – gasoline – with another resource – lithium.
“It’s important to recognize the scale of the areas that we’ve been polluting for centuries in Quebec’s history to encourage this polluting industry that’s only after its own profit,” he said.
Turgeon said citizens should resist the idea that lithium is saving the environment and instead change their consumption habits.
“It’s a switch from one type of pollution to another. We really need to do everything in our power to reduce our consumption,” he said.
Teresa Kramarz, the University of Toronto mining expert, says that alongside mining in Canada and abroad, serious discussions need to be held about more sustainable modes of transportation, including increased public transit.
“Anyone who buys electric cars and anyone who has a Tesla in their driveway, I don’t think that’s sustainable…it’s not fair, it’s not sustainable.
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