Taking Responsibility to Do No Harm

As we mine the resources we say we need to build stuff to ‘combat climate change’ we have, to date, mined irresponsibly. We have farmed irresponsibly and once we humans learned metallurgy, we began to mine irresponsibly. In fact, as humans are so badly designed we are always devising new ways to continue our destructive path to worsen climate change. It is in the name of ‘survival’, and we even use a phrase purported to be from Darwin, that it is for the ‘survival of the fittest’. We tip the scales in favour of the 1 percent as to who can be chosen to be included in the 1 percent of 7 billion plus humans on this earth. We also believe we are higher species than every other living thing on the earth, but we have proven we are the opposite.

Back in 2019 I wrote a blog about the Atacama Desert in Chile. I wrote about the formation of the Desert over millions of years, how researchers found there has been arsenic in the groundwater which had caused the slow, cruel death of many tribal people over the thousands of years they had nomadically travelled this land. I then wrote about recent extensive and harmful mining of copper and other resources and the continued ruthless rape and damage to the land and contamination of water from bad practices by the corporate mining companies. Tribal people have protested but only now, after their environment and lives have suffered so badly, are theories of safer mining practises being discussed. But the vast wealth of those responsible for mining these technological necessities are not improving life for the local people.

Now the added economical incentive to mine lithium, highly promoted by Elon Musk who was said to have made a deal with the Chilean government to secure a constant supply of lithium for his battery projects. He has since secured supplies from Bolivia and is even said to be interested in the lithium being newly mined in Cornwall, England. Seems like America will back Elon Musk and his desire to monopolise lithium output.

The Atacama salt flat is part of the so-called “lithium triangle” in Chile, a region containing a large portion of the world’s lithium reserves.(Screengrab from iquiquetv YouTube channel)

In 2021 there was an interesting analysis about the problems of mining lithium and water issues.

The analysis begins with the question:

Lithium mining has become a boom industry as more and more of the metal is needed in electric car batteries. Yet despite being lauded as key material for a renewables revolution, it too has a dark side. Blamed for speeding up desertification around the salt lakes of Latin America’s ‘lithium triangle’, the evaporation techniques used in mining lithium are causing concern. So does lithium have a water problem, and what is being done? We report.

The author points out the negatives which have accrued over recent years of harmful practices.

……..accessible high-quality ore deposits are limited to a select Andean countries – such as Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile. Current extraction methods in these regions have water at the heart of the process as the mineral is found dissolved in salt flats, requiring evaporation to be separated. This is opposed to methods used somewhere like Australia, which obtains lithium from ore mining. 

A seller of lithium pellets and pieces explains:

Lithium is classified as an alkali metal on the Periodic Table. It is the least dense of all metals and one of only three other metals that can float on water. It is silvery-white in appearance and very soft with a density of 0.53 g/cc, a melting point of 181°C, and a vapor pressure of 10-4 Torr at 407°C. Lithium is also highly flammable and easily oxidizes when exposed to air. While lithium and its compounds serve a variety of industries, it is mainly used to make rechargeable batteries which are found in smartphones, tablets, cars, and in many other products. Lithium, along with its alloys and compounds, is evaporated under vacuum to make batteries, fuel cells, and to form optical coatings.

Headline from article as shown below

In the Atacama Desert most of the World’s present supplies of lithium are mined.

I will finish with an extract from a long article on the use of brine to obtain the lithium, a cheap and 60 years old practice. Bad methodologies, for the sake of economy, proliferate, despite consciously knowing, seeing with their own eyes, and hearing the concern of locals, these malpractices continue worldwide. It is the arrogance of corporates who believe they are unassailable which causes direct anthropogenic degradation for all.

Since the lithium rush started, corporations like Sociedad Química y Minera de Chile (SQM), a multibillion-dollar Chilean chemical company, as well as US-headquartered Albemarle Corporation, bet on one effective way to extract lithium from the Atacama salt flats: lithium extraction from brine.

A method dating from the 1950s, it has encountered more and more scrutiny because it affects surrounding water reserves and could affect the climate. With pressure on Chile’s lithium demand and anticipated regulatory hurdles, the price of lithium has skyrocketed, according to data by the US Geological Survey (see chart).

What is lithium extraction from brine?

The way lithium is ‘water-mined’, says Ingrid Garcés, a researcher from Chile’s University of Antofagasta and chemical civil engineer, is by pumping saline groundwater up from the subsurface. The brine contains around 0.15 per cent lithium, and is pumped through a cascade of ponds where impurities or by-products are precipitated by solar evaporation, wind, and chemical additives.

The problem with this comparatively cheap method is that up to 95 per cent of the extracted brine water is lost to evaporation and not recovered, researchers estimate. As the brine water is in hydrodynamic relation with its surroundings, the water-intensive mining process in this extremely arid region causes aquifers to deplete and affects the water balance. This is leading to continuing outcry among local communities living in close proximity to the Atacama salt flat.

Cristina Dorador, a Chilean biologist who studies microbial life in the Atacama desert, says, “San Pedro de Atacama and other small towns are drying out”. Also drying out is Peine, a small township declared a National Monument in 1982 and situated only a stone’s throw away from gigantic lithium-brine mines.

“It is a paradox in Chile. On one side we are talking about decarbonisation, [to mitigate] climate change and the loss of biodiversity and on the other side we exploit the environment for resources to power the electric mobility revolution that supports climate change,” Dorador says.

E&T, in collaboration with satellite analytics firm SpaceKnow, has been able to produce further quantitative evidence that lithium brine mining efforts between 2015 and 2019 by SQM took a heavy environmental toll on a fragile water ecosystem within the Atacama salt flats.

The analysis found a strong inverse relationship between water reservoir levels at SQM’s ponds and the lagoons. As water levels in SQM’s ponds increased, those in the lagoons would drop. SQM’s second pond (see graphic) correlated with water reservoirs in alluvial muds. The firm’s first pond (see graphic) is linked to the fragile lagoons of the Soncor area, part of the Los Flamencos National Reserve. It is an important nesting ground for Andean flamingos. The statistical analysis can also prove causality, confirming that as brine extraction operation expanded, nearby areas suffered environmental degradation (see methodology notes).

While anecdotal evidence from local community members is abundant and mounting and researchers have long had some inkling of the environmental damage, few gathered quantitative evidence on specific damage until recently. Open-source satellite imagery and machine learning have helped to change that.

Dorador adds that the evidence was obvious. Many flamingos reportedly left the lagoons. Understanding what happens with microorganisms is a bit more complicated, but they would basically exhibit the same symptoms and diagnosis: “There is no recharge of the water in the Atacama salt flat. Much of the water is being evaporated in the process. This isn’t sustainable”.

San Pedro-based Ramón Morales Balcázar from the Plurinational Observatory Of Andean Salt Flats – a network of people from the communities, NGOs and research universities in the region – says the only way to challenge the loss of water is by drastically cutting water extraction by the companies operating in the region.

Government figures issued by the Comité de Minería No Metálica (the Nonmetallic Mining Committee) confirm that the current extractive development in the Basin of the Atacama salt flat provokes hydrological imbalances. With a brine output of 8,842 litres per second, and a recharge capacity of 6,810 litres per second, it was found be more than 2,000 litres per second above a rechargeable threshold.

Adding to the concerns is the ambition by Chile’s government to open up more land to brine mining, says Balcázar. “There are actually 59 salt lets in Chile and the ministry of mining is now calling for their exploitation, as soon as possible. That is really worrying to us.”

Balcázar is not alone in his apprehensions. Sergio Cubillos, heading Chile’s indigenous council, told Bloomberg that the government is encouraging more and more companies to come to explore and mine lithium. Capacity to oversee all of this would be nonexistent.

E&T has learned from a source that only last week, the Servicio de Evaluación Ambiental, Chile’s environmental assessment service, permitted the company Wealth Minerals Chile SpA, a natural resources company concentrating on developing lithium brine property packages in Chile, to explore the northern part of Salar de Atacama. The location would lie near a Ramsar site – defined as a wetland site designated to be of international importance under the Ramsar Convention – as well as based near tourist attractions where water supply is critical to provide local people with income.

At the beginning of August, state-owned Codelco (National Copper Corporation of Chile) and mining and metals company Minera Salar Blanco announced an agreement to explore the possibility of developing a lithium project at the Maricunga Salt Flat (see image). E&T was told that this happened without any consultation with the indigenous Qulla communities. The corporations are also allowed access to a national park area, the Nevado Tres Cruces (a massif of volcanic origin in the Andes Mountains, see map) as well as a Ramsar site, including Laguna Negro Francisco and Laguna Santa Rosa (map).

In Balcázar’s view, this could lead to consideration of “legal ways to protect indigenous rights, as well as social protests”, similar to those that took place in 2018 after the announcement of the deal between CORFO and SQM, he told E&T.

A comprehensive research study that was published this year supports the findings of E&T’s investigation and the satellite analysis. Wenjuan Liu and her research colleagues at the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University found that lithium mining in the area bore strong negative correlations with the vegetation and soil moisture – meaning, the more mining, the rarer plants and water become in the soil.

Arguably not 100 per cent caused by brine mining – a booming tourism industry and a slight population increase also contributed – the research identified lithium brine mining activities as one of the major stresses affecting local environmental degradation. Two decades, 1997-2017, were studied, recording soil moisture, vegetation and temperature. An expansion of lithium brine mining area of one square kilometre was found to correspond to a significant decrease in the average level of vegetation and in soil moisture.

Other environmental consequences are observable in changes in the region’s microclimate. When climate changes, natural disasters can strike more often. At the beginning of the year, the area encountered a period of devastating rains, most untypical for the arid area. Ironically, the amount of water precipitated was insufficient to recharge the aqua-reserves, but did cause destructive floods, Balcázar recalls. “San Petro was isolated for almost a month in February due to flooding. The water is now coming also with a lot of salts, with heavy metals, which are naturally present in the environment. It is also affecting the communities that live in these territories”, he told E&T.

This article is so clear and anyone can see the harm that has been done but with conscious disregard. We humans commit crimes against the environment, against humanity, against all living things on a 24/7 basis. We do it for short term gain. Long term our products inflict mostly dangerous and often fatal results as products fail.

About borderslynn

Retired, living in the Scottish Borders after living most of my life in cities in England. I can now indulge my interest in all aspects of living close to nature in a wild landscape. I live on what was once the Iapetus Ocean which took millions of years to travel from the Southern Hemisphere to here in the Northern Hemisphere. That set me thinking and questioning and seeking answers. In 1998 I co-wrote Millennium Countdown (US)/ A Business Guide to the Year 2000 (UK) see https://www.abebooks.co.uk/products/isbn/9780749427917
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