The Elements of Innovation Discovered

Maine couple discovers lithium motherlode

State laws need overhauling to mine the energy metal deposit Metal Tech News – July 26, 2023

Five years ago, Maine native Mary Freeman and her husband Gary went gem-hunting for tourmaline on their property in the woods of Plumbago Mountain.

Instead of the popular semiprecious stone they were seeking, they discovered what appears to be the richest known hard rock lithium deposit in the world – a formation of gigantic lithium-bearing spodumene crystals with an estimated value of $1.5 billion.

The timing of their discovery, officially called Plumbago North, is fortuitous. According to International Energy Agency projections, by 2040, the world is expected to need more than ten times the lithium it produces today to maintain its current course toward a zero-emission energy transition.

In spite of this windfall, the Freemans have a rocky journey between them and commercial production.

A much bigger find

Western Maine's mountains are mineral-rich, and this outcropping near the rural town of Newry is no exception. Until now, the most famous discovery in these mountains was the Big Find, a cavern of rainbow tourmaline discovered in the 1970s and one of the most important gem finds in North America.

The deposit has yielded some of the world's finest specimens of the boron-based crystal with a wide spectrum of colors depending on the iron, copper or manganese content. Those same minerals are now buzzwords in the energy transition. In retrospect, it seems inevitable that the new wave of critical mineral prospectors would come calling.

But the spry and silver-haired Freeman couple consider themselves environmentalists rather than prospectors, with a passion for the pursuit of beautiful stones.

Since 2003, they've been buying up property parcels, studying core samples and old geological maps to determine where to dig next. Meanwhile, in addition to spending hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on the process, many of their most impressive and prized finds over the years have been donated for display at the nearby Maine Mineral & Gem Museum, which boasts a case dedicated to their discoveries.

Not all uphill

Myles Felch is a geologist and curator at the museum in Bethel, which is 25 minutes south of Newry. Inspired by the discovery, he is planning an upcoming exhibit on Maine's lithium and has conducted talks, Q&As, and Zoom workshops surrounding the find and related legislature for groups like Center for an Ecology Based Economy, a local nonprofit focused on climate change and creating a regenerative economy.

Maine's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) had initially rejected the Freemans' request to consider the area a quarry due to spodumene's classification as a metallic mineral which requires permits under Maine's 2017 Metallic Mineral Mining Act (MMMA), a long and costly process requiring hundreds of thousands of dollars and several years to complete.

However, recent U.S. Geological Survey-funded bedrock mapping efforts surrounding the Plumbago North deposits touch on certain aspects of Maine's current metallic mining law to help explain how the site is not a sulfide-bearing mineral deposit. This is an important mineralogical difference that should ease a great many worries about groundwater contamination, the cause of most ecological damages in past mining and the reason for such strict regulations surrounding metallic mining and ensuing public resistance.

Gov. Janet Mills recently signed legislation which took five years to write, adjusting the MMMA and its decades-long discouragement of active metal mines and permit applications since the law passed in 2017.

At issue has been the state's definition of a metallic mineral as "any ore or material to be excavated from the natural deposits on or in the earth for its metallic mineral content to be used for commercial or industrial purposes."

Surprisingly, radioactive elements thorium and uranium were excluded from this definition, but spodumene, the mineral that contains lithium, was not.

Prompted by their discovery and its implications for the U.S. lithium industry, Maine lawmakers ultimately settled on legislation that allows larger open pit metal mines provided they can prove as developers that they won't pollute nearby watersheds or cause environmental harm in the process.

Worth the wait

An extensive review process has finally resulted in progress toward the Freemans' goal to mine their lithium deposit, but mining is always a slow and administratively beleaguered process. Having persisted five years after his and his wife's discovery, Gary will likely be in his 80s before all the necessary permits are in place, and mining can begin.

The couple has already spent more than $700,000 opening the initial three acres allowed, extracting and hand-sorting 700 tons of spodumene from the exploratory pit, a glittering maw of crystalline rocks tumbling out of the side of the mountain.

"This is going to be a very important source of lithium in the future," said William Simmons, a mineralogist at the University of New Orleans and co-author with Mr. Freeman of a recent paper on the discovery describing preliminary results from a sample of about 10 tons of ore which demonstrated a higher average lithium content than any of the top ten spodumene-producing deposits in the world.

Should the Maine deposit be mined, as one of the rare few hardrock lithium deposits in the U.S., it would be cleaner, cheaper, and more efficient than brine extraction, and being worth over a billion dollars, would be a bountiful payoff for the Freeman family's time and care during this project.

It would also be a potential boost to the local economy and workforce and tick an important box for the Biden administration's massive legislative and financial efforts to jumpstart domestic critical minerals mining, processing, and recycling.

Assuaging fears

Where new mines have been proposed, there is almost always community opposition. As more prospectors come calling, towns are beginning to pass their own bans and moratoriums on industrial mining.

Communities have a healthy skepticism about mining projects, with no shortage of bad examples. According to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, 80% of more than 50,000 abandoned mines from a bygone era in the western U.S. have left behind environmental damage that is still unremediated.

Mainers often point to their own coastal town of Brooksville as a cautionary tale. The former Callahan Mine operated there during the 1960s created a toxic waste site, which finally received enough attention in the 1970s to prompt the EPA to designate the area as a Superfund site for cleanup.

Keeping it clean

The Freemans plan to dig for the spodumene, then ship it out of state for processing, so there would be no chemical ponds or tailings storage to deal with.

The biggest issue with focusing on only getting lithium out of the ground is that most of the world's lithium processing is done in China, a near monopoly that lithium producers like Australia are trying to change.

The U.S. government and automotive industry are intent on bringing more spokes of the EV battery supply home to better control the resource and its price and maintain higher environmental standards and labor regulations while reducing carbon footprint and transport costs. This includes lithium processing, which still has a toxic downside, and upcoming U.S. facilities are still mostly blueprints.

Still, the U.S. has a more rigorous regulatory environment than many other countries, and there are opportunities for domestic mines and their host communities to get along. Stillwater Mine in Montana is an exemplary situation where community organizations sued to stop construction and, after a year of negotiations, came to a Good Neighbor Agreement in 2000.

The Sibanye-Stillwater Mining Company was allowed to extract platinum and palladium after working with community organizations toward clear and enforceable water standards, restrictions to minimize local traffic, and setting up third-party auditors to ensure adherence to those standards.

"If we're talking about critical metals and materials, we're so far behind that it's crazy," says Corby Anderson, a professor at the Colorado School of Mines. "It's the dichotomy of the current administration – they have incentives for electric vehicles and all these things, but they need materials like graphite, manganese, nickel, cobalt, lithium, and copper. The only one we mine and refine in this country is copper."

According to an analysis by Patrick Donnelly for the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, more than 100 companies have staked claims for lithium deposits in the western U.S. and applied for permits to mine cobalt in Idaho, nickel in Minnesota, and more. Communities that haven't had working mines in years may soon find themselves back in business.

But with such an avid drive to quickly find and accelerate critical mineral acquisitions in the U.S., companies may no longer feel the need to make similar promises to communities. Even well-meaning governmental and corporate focus on the threat of climate change can pressure communities to get out of the way of mines.

"We should think about what is driving this demand, why does this rush feel so intensive, why is there not a version where we are going to try and do this transition with the least amount of mining possible?" said Thea Riofrancos, an associate professor studying mining and the green energy transition at Providence College.

Riofrancos and other scholars have recommended curbing a potential lithium shortage should take recycling infrastructure for batteries and tailings into account and push energy transition policies to focus beyond private vehicle sales and onto facilitating public transportation, for example.

Learning from history

The communities of Maine are still divided, with generations who have witnessed long-term damage from old, unregulated mines. There are also pragmatists with big-picture visions of needing alternatives to fossil fuels, and a future of summer-generated power needing to be stored alongside home-canned pie fillings for those dark Maine winters.

Mr. Felch is a Mainer and an educator first.

"I love the place where I grew up and I wouldn't want anything to ever happen to it," he says of his hometown, where Canada-based Exiro Minerals hopes to find nickel near a beloved pond amidst local resistance. On the other hand, "you need mineral resources. Most people were probably texting 'stop the mine' with a nickel cobalt battery in their phones."


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