Lithium Mining and Environmental Impact

Like any mining operation, mining lithium has its impact on the environment. Today’s mining companies take sustainable development very seriously and responsibly and focus on environmental management more than ever.

Each time we begin talking about mining for resources, there is an environmental concern. While USA and other developed countries are pursuing becoming independant from fossil fuels in favor of alternatie fuels and electircally powered cars, there’s a bigger picture. 

When it comes to mass production of hybrid and electric vehicles, the main problem has been a shortage of batteries. And the main material in growing demand is lithium.  An element found in abundance in South America, where the cheapest extraction method by evaporating salt brines in the solar ponds deploys usage of cheap and toxic PVC; and in lithium-rich regions of Chile where extracting the metal uses two-thirds of the area’s fresh drinking water.

Lithium is the 33rd most abundant element, however, it does not naturally occur in its pure form due to its high reactivity. Lithium metal, due to its alkaline properties, is corrosive and reacts with water. Breathing lithium dust or alkaline lithium compounds irritates respiratory tracts. Prolonged exposure to lithium can cause fluid to build-up in the lungs, leading to pulmonary edema. The metal itself is a handling hazard because of the caustic hydroxide produced when it is in contact with water causing an explosion.

Lithium mining carries high environmental costs. Mining companies prospecting lithium in northern Tibet, salt plains of South America, and Chile as well as lithium at Bolivia's Salar De Uyuni require extensive extraction operations and water in a dry land.

But according to an article published by TIME, “lithium mining, as observed in countries with deposits like Chile, Argentina and China, seems to be less hazardous than other kinds of mineral extraction. ‘Lithium could be one of the least contaminating mining processes,’ says Marco Octavio Rivera of Bolivia’s Environmental Defense League, although he notes that prolonged exposure to lithium can cause nervous system disorders.”

Everything comes at the cost, so while the environmental impact might not be worse than mountaintop mining, it’s going to be important to pay attention to the environmental impact, because there will be one.