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Image: David McNew/Getty Images

An Incredibly Toxic Lake Will Become One of the US' First Lithium Mines

The promise and peril of turning the Salton Sea into California’s “Lithium Valley.”
July 12, 2021, 2:23pm
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One of the United States' first major forays into lithium mining seems like it's going to be in the Salton Sea—one of the most polluted places in the country—after General Motors struck a deal with a mining company called Controlled Thermal Resources.

This is a big, and potentially very complicated, deal for anyone who cares about the planet. Many experts believe that in order to have any hope of staving off climate change, we have to electrify cars and essentially everything else as soon as possible (ideally, yesterday). 

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Lithium-ion batteries are key to this process, and global demand is expected to increase between 5 and 18 times over the next several years. Put simply, we will need a lot of lithium, and the overwhelming majority of lithium in today's batteries comes from Australia, Chile, China, and Argentina. But the American southwest has huge stores of lithium as well. 

General Motors is hoping that a CTR mine in the Salton Sea can supply “a significant portion” of the lithium needed for its electric cars. It’s a step toward GM’s first-in-the-nation commitment to phasing gasoline-powered cars out of its production line by 2035—CTR is slated to start delivering lithium to the company by 2024, at which point the company will be well-poised to achieve this goal. 

This is, potentially, a very good thing. But it's also complicated: Mining, broadly speaking, is environmentally destructive. Lithium mining is usually—but not always—less destructive than, say, strip mining. And the Salton Sea, an accidental reservoir near California vacation mainstays like Joshua Tree and Palm Springs, is one of the most polluted places on the planet due to decades of agricultural runoff. Environmentalists there worry that if the lake continues to dry up as a result of drought and climate change, toxic dust on its floor could go airborne and pollute the air between Phoenix and Los Angeles. The area is understood to hold one of the nation’s largest lithium brine stores, capable of supplying up to 40 percent of global demand for the mineral, according to the California Energy Commission (CEC)

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Legislators in California are aiming to position the region as a leader in the race for the mineral, which is widely viewed as essential to the transition away from fossil fuels. California has its own set electric vehicle targets to achieve: All new car sales must be zero-emissions by 2035. Being home to a store of minerals for batteries could make this easier, and this so-called soon-to-be “lithium valley” is leading the way.

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“Right here in Southern California, we have the enormous opportunity to be a competitive player in the world lithium market,” said California Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia, who represents Imperial County, where the Salton Sea is located, in a May committee hearing on the resource. 

CTR claims its production process is self-contained and environmentally sound. It plans to use renewable energy to extract the mineral, which can be found in rocks, clays and underground reservoirs of brine. The Salton Sea is already home to a complex of 10 geothermal power stations, which pump steam from underground into generators. CTR would use these power plants to pump brine from deep in the earth, extract the lithium, and then return the brine to the Earth. Unlike other lithium mines around the world, it would not use open pit evaporation, where brine is evaporated by the sun, leaving behind minerals for processing. The method CTR proposes would use much less energy and water than other methods popular around the world, the company said.

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“CTR will deploy a direct lithium extraction process to recover lithium from the brine using clean energy and steam and ion exchange technology and all brine is returned to the geothermal reservoir (minus the lithium) within one hour,” a CTR spokesperson said.

The proposal takes advantage of existing energy production processes without requiring much additional land. Proponents say this method would cut down on the industry’s environmental footprint. 

But to community members around the proposed mines, ramping up lithium extraction feels complicated. The Salton Sea was created accidentally in 1905 after a portion of the Colorado River spilled out of its irrigation system—at 200 feet below sea level, it’s what’s called a “terminal” or “endorheic” lake, one lacking an outlet, that water from the Colorado River and runoff from nearby agricultural irrigation drains into, but not out of. The only way water in the lake can depart it is through evaporation, a process that leaves behind a fair amount of salt. Multiplied by the salinity of runoff it receives, the Salton Sea has become very salty—50 percent moreso than the Pacific ocean

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Image: David McNew/Getty Images​

The Salton Sea was once a resort area, with a series of small towns and vacation spots on its coasts. It is now so toxic that few creatures can live in its waters, though it is still an ecologically important area for migratory birds. Some of the towns, such as Bombay Beach, have essentially become ghost towns over the past few decades.

Chemicals like arsenic, selenium, and pesticides are rampant in the lake’s waters, and their particles have been released into the atmosphere as it dries, which is happening at an increasing rate as drought grips the west coast. Communities around the sea have long felt the burden of pollutant exposure; asthma-related emergency room visits are more than double the state average and nearly a third of children experience respiratory symptoms like wheezing, allergies, and dry cough, medical surveys have found.

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So, ramping up mining in one of the state’s most polluted counties—where 85 percent of residents are Hispanic or Latino and 22 percent live under the poverty line—feels risky to environmental justice organizers like Miguel Hernandez, communications coordinator at Comité Cívico del Valle. Hernandez hopes to see producers and local legislators make an effort to inform residents about the possible, yet-mostly-unknown health effects of lithium mining, which in other parts of the world is water-intensive and produces a fair amount of mineral waste. The concerns pollution researchers like Katie Burnworth, who monitors the Salton Sea for the Imperial County Air Pollution Control District. 

“It’s a dangerous, dirty process, with a lot of unknown material,” Burnworth told the California Desert Sun in February.

So far, Hernandez says, this educational effort has yet to happen. 

“We actually go out there and knock on doors,” Hernandez said. “For those families that I've been able to talk to, it's either little to no information has been shared to them, or they just have what's out there by the media.”  

A CTR spokesperson said “Every month for the past 5 months the Lithium Valley Commission has held public meetings where there is educational discussions, presentations and many other opportunities for community representatives to request further information."

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Beyond California, lithium mining across the country has garnered widespread controversy in recent months. A proposed mine in Nevada, called Thacker Pass, was the site of protest in the Spring from local Indigenous communities and environmentalists who feared mining could deplete the already-dry region’s water stores, generate waste and emit thousands of tons of carbon dioxide

All of that said, absent a massive degrowth movement that significantly reduces the amount of energy society uses, many experts believe we need lithium to decarbonize. Proponents of lithium mining say it is less environmentally destructive than mining for oil and coal, but it's also not good for the environment, and, in other parts of the world, lithium mining uses a lot of water. The American southwest is already facing intense water shortages and drought, though the lithium in the Salton Sea is already in brine form and the method proposed by CTR would use far less water than other methods.

Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixit, a technology repair company that seeks to extend the life of electronics, believes mining of any kind is inherently harmful, and “one of the worst things that we do as a species.” 

“There is incredible environmental destruction that comes from it,” Wiens said. 

But few extraction projects have Wiens—who says he devotes much of his time at iFixit to thinking about the depletion of nonrenewable resources—as optimistic as this one. The idea of using existing energy production to create something that would otherwise be shot back into the ground feels “pretty darn promising,” he says, noting that putting that effort toward a resource that would fuel the transition away from oil and gas is worthwhile. 

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“This to me seems like a perfectly common sense win-win situation,” Wiens says. “We don't have to dredge the desert … it's already in this liquid that we're circulating [for geothermal energy] anyway.”

Indeed, this argument is at the center of what’s splintered environmentalists about the hunt for lithium, among other minerals required to create solar panels, wind turbines and batteries. Some believe mining is a necessary evil and a requisite in the transition to renewables; others fear this is a bandaid for the broader issue of overconsumption, and say maintaining an extraction-based economy will not do enough to curb climate change. (Wiens, for his part, takes solace in seeing a broadening cohort of startups recycling lithium in batteries, which only became lucrative at scale recently, as the number of electric vehicles on the roads has shot up). 

In a press release, CTR said that “The integration of direct lithium extraction with renewable geothermal energy offers the highest sustainability credentials available today. CTR’s closed-loop, direct lithium extraction process utilizes renewable power and steam – significantly reducing the time to produce battery-grade lithium products and eliminating the need for overseas processing. CTR’s operations will have a minimal physical footprint and a near-zero carbon footprint. The brine, after lithium extraction, is returned to the geothermal reservoir deep within the earth.”

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Bringing job opportunities to a region with unemployment rates that have historically hovered around 20 percent could also flush cash into projects that need it badly, like pollution mitigation, education, infrastructure and healthcare, Wiens notes. Rodriguez echoes that belief, but isn't ready to get too excited. A recent solar buildout in Imperial County saw massive land use with little economic gains for the region because of tax exemptions and a slew of jobs handed to outsiders, he says. 

Rodriguez would like to see local jobs and training programs come out of the CTR contract—an ask that’s still up in the air as the producer undergoes permitting processes. Ryan Kelly, representative of the district that’s home to the Salton Sea on the Imperial County Board of Supervisors, says this is a concern, one that he’s yet to broach with GM. 

But as vice chair of the Lithium Valley Commission (a governing board Gov. Gavin Newsom created last September devoted to guiding the buildout of mining opportunities in the region), Kelly is currently fighting to pass an ordinance that would place a levy on the mineral, securing income from the mines for local projects like schooling and infrastructure. 

Made up of representatives from industry, government, environmental groups, and community advocacy organizations like Hernandez’s, the commission’s goal is to facilitate conversation around economic and environmental concerns, and to draft a set of recommendations for the sector as it emerges in southern California. 

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“What community-based organizations want to know is how are these large companies going to play a part in our community?” Kelly said. “What are they going to give back for what they take?” 

Indeed, Hernandez says having a seat at the table is heartening for Comité Cívico del Valle. “I think this is the first, or one of the first opportunities that the community is able to be represented in these situations,” he notes. 

But the commission’s framework is non-binding, meaning, once they pass an environmental impact review, companies like CTR do not have to follow the recommendations. Kelly is hopeful that this won’t be an issue (“Maybe I'm being a little too optimistic, but so far we haven't had any arguments,” he said, of the commission, with a laugh.) 

Hernandez is hopeful, too—but he believes the next stages of approval in GM’s contract will be telling. 

“I'm not against the industry, or any industry, but I'm a huge advocate for doing things right,” Rodriguez says. “Let's assume it's gonna be part of our communities. Then, let's make lithium a good neighbor.” 

Motherboard reached out to representatives at General Motors but we did not hear back.

This article has been updated with comment from CTR.