Maine Has the Lithium America Needs, But Won’t Allow Mining

Maine Has the Lithium America Needs, But Won’t Allow Mining
Maine Has the Lithium America Needs, But Won’t Allow Mining

This story was revealed in partnership with The Maine Monitor, a nonprofit and nonpartisan information group. To get common protection from the Monitor, join a free Monitor e-newsletter here.


The world’s richest recognized lithium deposit lies deep within the woods of western Maine, in a yawning, glowing mouth of white and brown rocks that appears like a landslide carved into the aspect of Plumbago Mountain.

Mary Freeman and her husband Gary discovered the deposit 5 years in the past whereas trying to find tourmaline, a hanging, multi-colored gemstone discovered within the area.

The Freemans make their residing promoting lab provides via the Florida-based firm they based 40 years in the past, Consciousness Know-how. However their real love is digging for gem stones, which has introduced them for years to Mary’s residence state of Maine, the positioning of a number of the finest tourmaline looking on the planet.

Since 2003, they’ve been shopping for up property parcels, learning core samples and outdated geological maps to find out the place to strive digging subsequent, then spending a whole lot of 1000’s of {dollars} a 12 months on blasting and tools. The couple has dug greater than a mile of tunnels in pursuit of lovely stones, and plenty of of their finds—like blue elbaite and wealthy watermelon tourmaline—have wound up on show on the Maine Mineral & Gem Museum in close by Bethel.

Now, the Freemans wish to increase this pit, close to the city of Newry, Maine, to allow them to mine spodumene, crystals that comprise the lithium the U.S. wants for the clear vitality transition. The timing of their discovery, in what has been named Plumbago North, is exceptional; the Freemans have stumbled throughout one of many solely hard-rock sources of lithium within the U.S. at a time when the fabric is desperately wanted for the clear vitality transition. By 2040, the world will want at the very least 1.1 million metric tons of lithium yearly, greater than ten instances what it at present produces, in line with projections by the Worldwide Vitality Company. Ought to the Maine deposit be mined, it may very well be price as a lot as $1.5 billion, an enormous windfall for the Freemans and a boon to the Biden Administration’s efforts to jumpstart more domestic mining, processing, and recycling of critical minerals akin to lithium, cobalt, and uncommon earth components to scale back the U.S.’ dependence on China. This is likely one of the few lithium deposits within the U.S. at present present in arduous rock, which implies it’s higher-quality and sooner to course of than lithium mined from brine.

“I take into account myself an environmentalist,” says Mary, who on a latest wet go to to the check quarry, was carrying denims, a sweater, and mountain climbing boots, her white hair pulled right into a low ponytail. A lot of the nation’s crucial minerals are mined elsewhere and processed in China, she provides. “I believe [the U.S.] ought to attempt to be a little bit bit extra self-sufficient.”

Learn extra: Lithium Is Key to the Electric Vehicle Transition. It’s Also in Short Supply

However like nearly in every single place within the U.S. the place new mines have been proposed, there’s robust opposition right here. Maine has a number of the strictest mining and water high quality requirements within the nation, and prohibits digging for metals in open pits bigger than three acres. There haven’t been any lively steel mines within the state for many years, and no firm has utilized for a allow since a very strict legislation handed in 2017. As extra corporations start prospecting in Maine and trying to find sizable nickel, copper, and silver deposits, cities are starting to go their very own bans on industrial mining.

“This can be a story that has been performed out in Maine for generations,” says Invoice Pluecker, a member of the state’s Home of Representatives, whose hometown of Warren—a 45-minute drive from the capital metropolis of Augusta—just lately voted overwhelmingly in favor of a short lived ban on industrial steel mining after a Canadian firm got here in search of minerals close to a beloved native pond. “We construct industries based mostly on the wants of populations not residing right here after which the underside drops out, leaving us struggling once more to select up the items.”

A deteriorating tank sits on the site of the Callahan Mine in Brooksville, Maine, on Dec. 21, 2016. The former open pit copper and zinc mine is now a federal Superfund site. Mining companies that once pursued precious metals have abandoned half a million mines across the country and, thanks to decades of lax regulations, left the bill to taxpayers. (Robert F. Bukaty—AP)

A deteriorating tank sits on the positioning of the Callahan Mine in Brooksville, Maine, on Dec. 21, 2016. The previous open pit copper and zinc mine is now a federal Superfund website. Mining corporations that when pursued valuable metals have deserted half one million mines throughout the nation and, due to many years of lax laws, left the invoice to taxpayers.

Robert F. Bukaty—AP

Mainers usually invoke the Callahan Mine within the coastal city of Brooksville as a warning. Tailings from the mine, which operated for a number of years within the late Nineteen Sixties, had been disposed of in a pile subsequent to a salt marsh and creek. The previous mine is now a Superfund website, and a 2013 study by researchers at Dartmouth Faculty discovered widespread proof of poisonous metals in close by sediment, water and fish. Cleanup prices, borne by taxpayers, are estimated between $23 million and $45 million.

“Our gold rush mentality concerning oil has fueled the local weather disaster,” says State Rep. Margaret O’Neil, who introduced a invoice final session that may have halted lithium mining for 5 years whereas the state labored out guidelines (the laws finally failed). “As we facilitate our transition away from fossil fuels, we should study the dangers of lithium mining and take into account whether or not the advantages of mining right here in Maine justify the harms.”

The Freemans’ level out that they plan to dig for the spodumene, then ship it out of state for processing, so there could be no chemical ponds or tailings piles. They liken the excavation of the minerals to quarrying for granite or limestone, which enjoys an extended, wealthy historical past in Maine.

Advocates for mining within the U.S. argue that, because the nation outsources most of its mining to locations with much less strict environmental and labor laws, these harms are at present being born by international residents, whereas placing U.S. producers within the precarious place of relying on faraway sources for the minerals they want. Although there are greater than 12,000 active mines within the U.S., the majority of them are for stone, coal, sand, and gravel.

Mary Freeman holds a spodumene crystal, which contains lithium, found in the test pit she and her husband Gary own in Newry, Maine, on June 6. (Garrick Hoffman—The Maine Monitor)

Mary Freeman holds a spodumene crystal, which accommodates lithium, discovered within the check pit she and her husband Gary personal in Newry, Maine, on June 6.

Garrick Hoffman—The Maine Monitor

There is just one operational lithium mine within the U.S., in Nevada, and one operational rare earth element mine, in Mountain Cross, Calif., that means that the U.S. depends on different nations for the supplies important for clear vitality applied sciences like batteries, wind generators, and photo voltaic panels. Even after they’re mined, these supplies at present must be shipped to China for processing because the U.S. doesn’t have any processing amenities.

“If we’re speaking about crucial metals and supplies, we’re up to now behind that it’s loopy,” says Corby Anderson, a professor on the Colorado Faculty of Mines. “It’s the dichotomy of the present administration—they’ve incentives for electrical automobiles and all this stuff, however they want supplies like graphite, manganese, nickel, cobalt, lithium, and copper. The one one we mine and refine on this nation is copper.”


The COVID-19 pandemic laid naked the issues of faraway provide chains; as U.S. shoppers shopped on-line of their properties, the products they purchased, largely from Asia, skilled prolonged delays at clogged ports. What’s extra, diplomatic tensions with China motivated the U.S. authorities to hunt different potential sources for mining, materials processing, and recycling.

That’s why, within the pandemic’s aftermath, the Biden Administration launched an initiative to safe a Made in America provide chain for crucial minerals. It included billions in funding for corporations attempting to mine and course of crucial minerals domestically.

A satellite view of cargo ships waiting to offload at the Ports of Los Angeles on Oct. 10, 2021, during the Covid-19 pandemic. (Gallo Images/Orbital Horizon/Copernicus Sentinel Data/Getty Images)

A satellite tv for pc view of cargo ships ready to dump on the Ports of Los Angeles on Oct. 10, 2021, throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.

Gallo Photos/Orbital Horizon/Copernicus Sentinel Knowledge/Getty Photos

The rocks in Plumbago North would appear to assist present a home provide chain for crucial minerals; they’re regarded as among the many largest specimens of spodumene ever discovered, with crystals of such prime quality that along with batteries, they may very well be used to make scientific glassware or pc screens, the place the lithium steel would assist decrease the melting temperature.

The Freemans are simply two of the a whole lot of individuals prospecting for crucial supplies throughout the nation because the U.S. tries to strengthen the home provide chain. In keeping with an evaluation by Patrick Donnelly, the Nice Basin Director for the Middle for Organic Range, a nonprofit environmental group, greater than 100 corporations have staked claims for lithium deposits within the American West. Firms even have utilized for permits to mine cobalt in Idaho, nickel and copper in Minnesota, and lithium in North Carolina.

Geologists say there’s additionally possible much more lithium in spodumene deposits throughout New England. Communities that haven’t had working mines in years could quickly discover themselves a key supply for lithium and different minerals wanted for automobile batteries, photo voltaic panels, and most of the objects folks will want extra of to transition themselves off polluting fossil fuels.


There are good causes for U.S. communities to have wholesome skepticism about mining tasks; there is no such thing as a scarcity of examples of an organization coming right into a group, mining till doing so turns into too costly, then leaving a polluted website for another person to wash up. There are greater than 50,000 deserted mines within the western United States alone, 80% of which nonetheless must be remediated. Passage of landmark environmental legal guidelines just like the Clear Air Act of 1970 and the Clear Water Act of 1972 hasn’t made mining secure sufficient, environmentalists say.

Former Hualapai tribal leader Carrie Imus holds a sign as demonstrators walk though the desert during a rally against the Hawkstone Mining Big Sandy Lithium Project in Wikieup, Ariz., on Dec. 4, 2021. Demonstrators believe that the mine poses a threat to the water supply during an ongoing severe drought. (Bridget Bennett—Bloomberg/Getty Images)

Former Hualapai tribal chief Carrie Imus holds an indication as demonstrators stroll although the desert throughout a rally towards the Hawkstone Mining Massive Sandy Lithium Venture in Wikieup, Ariz., on Dec. 4, 2021. Demonstrators imagine that the mine poses a menace to the water provide throughout an ongoing extreme drought.

Bridget Bennett—Bloomberg/Getty Photos

“All mines pollute in a technique or one other, and mines are actually unhealthy at predicting how a lot they’re going to pollute,” says Jan Morrill, who research mining on the environmental group Earthworks, which just lately found that 76% of mining corporations within the U.S. polluted groundwater after saying they wouldn’t.

Probably the most problematic elements of mines is the tailings, or waste, Morrill says: Firms extract the minerals they want, then are left with an enormous pile of rock, liquid, and chemical compounds that they retailer in ponds or behind dams that generally show unstable. These tailings have induced landslides, extreme mud, and water air pollution; greater than 300 mine tailing dams have failed worldwide during the last century, in line with Christopher Sergeant, a analysis scientist on the College of Montana.

It’s not unusual for tailings to leak into water, the truth is, there’s a allow that mine house owners can get in case they discover their projections had been flawed and they should discharge into U.S. waters.

Even “trendy mines” that adhere to the newest U.S. requirements—that are among the many strictest on the planet—nonetheless pollute, Earthworks has found. Although there are, theoretically, non-polluting methods to retailer mine tailings, doing so is rather more costly and mine operators have largely not paid to take action, Morrill says. That’s as a result of, says Aimee Boulanger, govt director of the Initiative for Accountable Mining Assurance, “legal guidelines and markets haven’t totally incentivized corporations to try this.”

Certainly, the Biden initiative to extend home mining consists of, for instance, a $700 million loan for Ioneer, an organization planning a lithium mine on Rhyolite Ridge in Nevada, the place environmental teams say the mine, as proposed, would cause the extinction of an endangered species known as Tiehm’s buckwheat. The Administration can also be spending $115 million to assist Talon Nickel construct a battery minerals processing facility in North Dakota, however the potential mine they’d supply from, in Minnesota, is opposed by Indigenous teams and environmentalists who concern it may contaminate wells within the space.

Lithium evaporation ponds are seen at Albemarle Lithium production facility in Silver Peak, Nev., on Oct. 6, 2022. (Carlos Barria—Reuters)

Lithium evaporation ponds are seen at Albemarle Lithium manufacturing facility in Silver Peak, Nev., on Oct. 6, 2022.

Carlos Barria—Reuters

Nonetheless, the U.S. has a extra rigorous regulatory setting than many different nations, she says, and there are home mines that even some environmentalists help, just like the Stillwater Mine in Montana. Neighborhood organizations there signed a Good Neighbor Agreement in 2000 with the Sibanye-Stillwater Mining Firm permitting the agency to extract platinum and palladium—whereas additionally establishing clear and enforceable water requirements, restrictions to attenuate native visitors, and third-party auditors to make sure the mine adheres to the requirements it set out. The mine is now one of many high employers and private-sector earnings turbines in Montana.

However advocates had to force the Agreement; three grassroots organizations sued to cease the development of the mine, and after a 12 months of negotiations, the mining firm and grassroots teams agreed to the contract as a substitute of going to courtroom. With help from elected officers looking for methods to mine extra crucial minerals within the U.S., corporations could not really feel the necessity to make related guarantees to the local people.

Learn extra: What Would Happen if South America Formed an OPEC for Lithium

Environmental issues aren’t the one downside with mining, Morrill says. The historical past of mining within the U.S. is linked to colonialism; Christopher Columbus was in search of gold when he stumbled throughout North America, and as Europeans expanded into the continent, they took land from Indigenous folks to mine for gold, silver, and different metals.

As we speak, mining within the U.S. usually encroaches on Indigenous land. Beneath mining legal guidelines within the U.S. that date to 1872, anybody can stake a declare on federal public lands and apply for permits to start out mining in the event that they discover “beneficial” mineral deposits there. Most lithium, cobalt, and nickel mines are within 35 miles of a Native American reservation, Morrill says, largely as a result of within the aftermath of the 1849 gold rush, the U.S. army eliminated tribes to reservations not removed from mineral deposits within the West. In a single significantly controversial undertaking, the mining firm Rio Tinto desires to construct a copper mine on Oak Flat, Ariz., a desert space adjoining to an Apache reservation that Indigenous teams have used for centuries to conduct cultural ceremonies.

But fears concerning the results of local weather change are escalating the strain on native communities to get out of the best way of mines, says Thea Riofrancos, an affiliate professor of political science at Windfall Faculty who research mining and the inexperienced vitality transition. She and different students have questioned whether or not projections that the world will face lithium shortages by 2025 are correct; recycling extra batteries and transitioning away from personal automobiles to extra public transportation, for instance, may cut back our long-term want for lithium-ion vitality storage.

“We must always take into consideration what’s driving this demand, why does this rush really feel so intensive, why is there not a model the place we’re going to try to do that transition with the least quantity of mining attainable?” Riofrancos says.

Most environmentalists agree that the 1872 mining legislation must be up to date and there are a number of payments in Congress that may accomplish that. The Clean Energy Minerals Reform Act of 2023, for instance, launched by Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) in Might, would require extra tribal session and alter how mining is authorised on federal lands.

Discovering a technique to mine within the U.S. may assist deal with an ethical quandary, that we eat these supplies however ask different nations to bear the brunt of their extraction, says Boulanger, with IRMA.

“There’s an argument to be made that if we’re going to make use of these supplies, and we dwell in essentially the most consumptive nation on the planet, we shouldn’t be making different nations be the checking account of our pure assets,” she says.

The Albermarle facility in Kings Mountain, N.C., on Aug. 10, 2022. Albemarle Corp. wants to restart a lithium mine as the building block of the first complete EV battery supply chain in the U.S. (Logan Cyrus—Bloomberg/Getty Images)

The Albermarle facility in Kings Mountain, N.C., on Aug. 10, 2022. Albemarle Corp. desires to restart a lithium mine because the constructing block of the primary full EV battery provide chain within the U.S.

Logan Cyrus—Bloomberg/Getty Photos

If lawmakers and regulators can’t agree on the best way to mine on U.S. soil, it may go away the U.S. vulnerable to primarily outsourcing its mining issues to less-regulated nations. For instance, final October, the Division of Vitality used the Bipartisan Infrastructure Legislation to provide a $141.7 million grant to Piedmont Lithium, which is constructing a plant in Tennessee to increase U.S. provide of lithium hydroxide, utilized in long-range batteries for electrical automobiles. In March, Blue Orca Capital, a hedge fund, stated it was “shorting,” or betting towards the inventory of Piedmont Lithium, alleging that the spodumene the agency plans to refine into lithium at its Tennessee facility was assured by bribes to the son of a high-level politician in Ghana—“due to corruption,” these uncooked supplies are more likely to by no means come to fruition, the hedge fund says. Piedmont denies the allegations and says in a press release supplied to TIME that the Minerals Revenue Funding Fund of Ghana informed the corporate that it has legitimate licenses and permits for all its present actions.


A lot of the proposed crucial supplies mines within the U.S. aren’t close to a giant inhabitants middle—or financial exercise, and a few communities are in favor of a mine for the roles it could create. However the proposed places may as a substitute result in conditions the place sparsely populated communities don’t find out about a deliberate mine till it’s too late to cease it. “It could actually really feel actually quick—unexpectedly an unlimited undertaking is being proposed subsequent door to you, it took years for the corporate to prospect however you didn’t hear about it ‘til now,” says Riofrancos.

The Freemans’ mine shouldn’t be one among these tasks. Although it’s 5 miles from the closest city, Maine goes via an in depth evaluation course of to resolve whether or not to let the couple maintain digging. Earlier in 2023, there have been seven payments within the legislature concerning the potential of mining lithium in Maine. Lawmakers finally settled on laws that will open the door to extracting the Freemans’ lithium by permitting bigger open pit steel mines, as long as builders can show they received’t pollute groundwater and the native setting. However the brand new legislation would require altering the state’s mining laws, which can imply it may very well be years earlier than the couple is ready to begin digging in earnest.

The Freemans say their mine wouldn’t pollute the encompassing land and water, because the chemical composition of the crystals and the rocks round them is such that they’d not dissolve into harmful acid when uncovered to air and water. Geologists that TIME/Maine Monitor spoke with agree with that evaluation. Additional, the crystals, says Mary, could be shipped out of state in giant chunks for processing, so there could be no chemical ponds or tailings.

Many geologists agree that the Freemans’ proposal wouldn’t be as disruptive as different proposed mines throughout the nation. Different metals (like nickel, silver, and zinc) usually happen in bands of rock deep under the floor that comprise iron sulfides, which create sulfuric acid when uncovered to air and water, polluting waterways for many years, a phenomenon often known as acid mine drainage. Some spodumene crystals at Plumbago North, in contrast, have been naturally uncovered to air and water for a whole lot of hundreds of thousands of years and never damaged down.

On a go to to the check quarry this spring, Gary Freeman identified one giant piece of spodumene mendacity on the backside of a close-by brook, the water over it dashing quick and clear, not the rusty orange of an acid-contaminated stream. (The waterway is thought, fittingly, as Spodumene Brook.) “The water is so good Poland Spring desires to bottle it and promote it,” says Mary.

Nonetheless, Morrill, of Earthworks, says there’s simply not sufficient analysis concerning the results of arduous rock spodumene mining to say for positive that the mine wouldn’t hurt the setting. Since so many individuals in Maine depend upon recreation and tourism for his or her livelihoods, she says, it makes essentially the most sense to maintain protecting laws in place.

Maine’s Division of Environmental Safety has rejected the Freemans’ request to think about the land a quarry, and is as a substitute classifying spodumene as a metallic mineral. Because the legislation stands, the Freemans must apply for permits below Maine’s 2017 Metallic Mineral Mining Act, a expensive course of (the appliance processing charge alone is $500,000) that may take years.

In the meantime, the local people is split. In any case, in Maine it’s not troublesome to search out folks nonetheless residing with the long-term harm of older mines. Then again, many Mainers are pragmatic and perceive the state has lengthy, darkish winters, and can want battery storage for any renewable vitality it generates on sunny or windy days. The choice is to proceed counting on fossil fuels, which might exacerbate local weather change.

Learn extra: Tesla Co-Founder JB Straubel Has a Fix for the Battery Problem

Myles Felch, curator on the Maine Mineral and Gem Museum, is one among these sensible Mainers. He was raised in Union, the place a groundswell of opposition has shaped to withstand a proposal by Canada-based Exiro Minerals to search for nickel close to a beloved native pond. Felch isn’t thrilled with the prospect, but additionally is aware of we will’t proceed to be so indifferent from the minerals we use in our day by day life.

“I really like the place the place I grew up and I wouldn’t need something to ever occur to it,” says Felch. However “you want mineral assets. Most individuals had been most likely texting ‘cease the mine’ with a nickel cobalt battery of their telephones.”

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