GASTON COUNTY, North Carolina, July 20 (Reuters) – In its quest to build one of the largest lithium mines in the United States, Piedmont Lithium Inc (PLL.O) has overlooked a crucial constituency: its neighbors in North Carolina.
Piedmont signed an agreement last fall to supply U.S. electric automaker Tesla Inc (TSLA.O) with lithium from its deposits in North Carolina, boosting the company’s inventories tenfold.
Piedmont has also engaged investment banks to find investors for its $ 840 million project, which would include an open pit more than 500 feet (152 m) deep and facilities to produce chemicals for lithium-based electric vehicle (EV) batteries.
The company, however, has not applied for a state mining permit or necessary zoning waiver in Gaston County, just west of Charlotte, although it has told investors since 2018 that it is about to do so.
Five of the seven members of the county commissioners’ council, who control zoning changes, say they could block or delay the project because Piedmont has not told them what levels of dust, noise and vibration will occur, nor how water and air quality would be affected.
“Piedmont has kind of put the proverbial cart before the horse,” said Tom Keigher, Chairman of the Council of Commissioners. “Why the hell would they make this deal with Tesla before they even get approval for the mine?” ”
Piedmont said he was waiting to approach officials to refine his plans – he released a third iteration last month – and get a client to show the mine could remain open for its expected life of 20 years.
“We finally have a project to kick off that we’re really talking about,” said Keith Phillips, CEO of Piedmont.
“Maybe it would have been better if (the commissioners) had been constantly in the know. We didn’t really have the time or the resources to do it and we didn’t even know what to say to them, until now. ”
The deteriorating relationship between Piedmont and county leaders reflects wider tension in the United States as resistance to living near a mine collides with the potential of electric vehicles to mitigate climate change.
Piedmont has already spent $ 58 million on the project, which would produce about 30,000 tonnes of lithium per year, enough to make about 3 million electric vehicles.
The company originally planned to locate its chemical plant in a neighboring county, but now plans to build it near the mine, a step that should reduce truck traffic. Piedmont also plans to crush rock in the mine pit, dampen dust, and incorporate solar power.
In September 2018, Piedmont told investors it expected to secure permits by the end of 2019. In August 2019, executives said they would apply for permits and rezoning “in the coming months.” .
Piedmont has said each time that it was “not aware” of any reason the county would not approve the zoning changes, even though it had not yet presented any information to the commissioners. In December, Piedmont said it expected to receive local zoning approval before the end of June.
The company said the delays were in part due to low lithium prices in recent years.
Piedmont was due to meet with the commissioners in March, but canceled with three days’ notice, further straining the relationship. Piedmont said he canceled that meeting in order to further refine his plans.
“This is the worst deployment of a corporate project I have ever seen,” said Chad Brown, a commissioner who opposes the mine.
Phillips, CEO of Piedmont, is expected to make a 15-minute presentation to the commissioners on Tuesday evening, although no votes are taken.
Phillips said he will tell commissioners Piedmont expects to apply for a state mining permit this summer, begin construction in April 2022 and be in production by the second half of 2023.
Piedmont’s deal with Tesla involves the supply of approximately 53,000 tonnes of spodumene concentrate to the automaker’s lithium hydroxide chemical plant in Texas, between July 2022 and July 2023.
Piedmont declined to discuss the deal with Tesla, but hinted that the automaker may not need supplies by 2023.
“We are confident in the relationship we have with our customers to be able to manage the lithium supply when they need it,” said David Klanecky, Chief Operating Officer of Piedmont.
Tesla, which has other lithium suppliers, did not respond to requests for comment. The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, which issues mining permits, said it expects an application “in the near future.”
State officials added that their review process could span more than a year, as they seek comments from at least six other state and federal agencies.
“I won’t even accept a Piedmont rezoning application until they have their state permit in hand,” said Brian Sciba, director of the Gaston County Planning and Zoning Office.
‘MINE AROUND MY PROPERTY’
Piedmont, whose shares trade in Australia and began trading on the Nasdaq in the United States earlier this year, owns or controls more than 3,000 acres (12 km²) in the western corner of rural Gaston County.
While some landowners are willing to sell if the offer is tempting enough, others say Piedmont has intimidated them.
“They told me that if I didn’t sell, they would just exploit my property,” said Emilie Nelson, whose Piedmont has been trying to buy 14 acres since 2017. Piedmont said it didn’t know if one of its contractors had made the alleged threat, but did not authorize or condone it.
“We always treat people with respect,” said Patrick Brindle, vice president of project management at Piedmont. “And if we weren’t those kind of operators, I don’t think we would be able to get the number of landowner deals we have. ”
Landowners have said they would prefer Piedmont to only build a processing plant and rely on a foreign mine for lithium supply. Livent Corp (LTHM.N) and Albemarle Corp (ALB.N) operate lithium processing plants in the county that source metal from South America.
Piedmont, which recently bought stakes in lithium projects in Quebec and Ghana, said it prefers to mine and process the metal at the Gaston County site. Piedmont’s arrangement with Tesla did little to impress locals. More than 1,500 have signed a petition asking the authorities to block the mine.
“There is no doubt that the mine would benefit our country and the green energy industry,” said Tracy Philbeck, Commissioner. “But it would have a negative impact on our community. “
Reporting by Ernest Scheyder; Editing by Amran Abocar and Marguerita Choy
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