Renewable energy depends on rare metal, but can it be mined sustainably?

·4 min read

Long Point First Nation is calling for more comprehensive environmental reviews after an Australian mining company said it wants to expand operations in the area. The Anishinabek community situated in Winneway is concerned about the impacts of lithium mining, a key component in the global efforts to move towards sustainable energy.

As environmental initiatives push consumers towards electric vehicles, debates rage over how “green” is the production of key elements like lithium, as mining can devastate landscapes.

Those tensions hit close to home for Long Point First Nation Chief Steeve Mathias, whose community sits on Lake Simard, an area where Sayona Mining Limited wants to establish a fourth mine. The company already has three mines in the region, near Winneway, La Corne and La Motte, and hopes to develop the Tansim mine near Lake Simard.

The community learned of the intended mine a few years ago, when Sayona Mining came to the community’s general assembly and informed them of the work. The company came back last year with drilling samples it said is “very interesting,” according to Mathias.

In a presentation to the community, Mathias said, Sayona Mining evoked an open-pit mine, which troubled residents. “We’re next to the Ottawa River, Lake Simard, a lot of our people have camps on that lake. Right away, the concern from our people was about contaminating the water, the land – it would significantly impact the wildlife and the fish,” Mathias said.

“It would impact our traditional way of life,” he added, saying proponents need to demonstrate there is no risk of water contamination. “We’re not just going to sit by and let things happen. We’ve been here forever and we’re not planning to let any company just exploit the land as they wish.”

Chief Mathias insists the project won’t go ahead without the consent of the community. “The position of the community is against the project,” he emphasized, adding he wants the community to do its own studies to gauge the total impact of all the mines in the area.

“Too often we’re left aside, they come here saying they’re going to consult us, but it’s all planned out. The minute we try to modify or harmonize these files, if there’s significant changes, we’re told it’s too late, we’ve spent too much money. There’s always some kind of excuse,” said Mathias.

It’s an opportunity to ensure that traditional ecological knowledge is addressed, Mathias said, noting that the territory Sayona wants to mine is a hunting ground, especially for moose.

Mathias said rumours of a spill at one mine site, which was owned by North American Lithium before Sayona Mining took over, means all three existing sites need to be evaluated.

Nine other citizen and environmental groups support Long Point and have launched a petition demanding the government commit resources for a cumulative assessment of Sayona Mining’s operations.

“Without denying the utility of lithium in the fight against the climate crisis, this fight must not be used as a pretext to destroy the territories of Indigenous Peoples once more without ensuring their rightful place in the decision-making process,” said Geneviève Béland of Mothers Step In – Val-d’Or, one of the groups behind the petition.

“The areas where Sayona Mining hopes to mine in perpetuity are living places, inhabited, occupied, loved and shared by Indigenous Peoples here – in stark contrast to the company’s shareholders who, since their first appearance in the region in 2016, continue to try and avoid the most rigorous and comprehensive environmental assessments,” said Marie-Hélène Massy-Émond, founder of the Pas du lieu Collective, another petition signatory.

A New York Times investigation found that lithium mines can consume vast amounts of water, while contaminating groundwater with antimony and arsenic.

A mine can create millions of cubic metres of mining waste, which may be contaminated from the sulfuric acid treatment that is used in some processes. Lithium is usually found in deposits of clay and mineral ore. It is excavated in open-pit mines, extracted directly or piped up to the surface with briny water, which is seen as more environmentally friendly.

Sayona Mining did not respond to an inquiry by press time. However, they did tell CBC News that they were still in an exploration phase at the Tansim site, and don’t yet know if there is enough lithium to construct a mine.

Mathias said the company reached out to him with a draft agreement over a year ago, which he didn’t bother analyzing.

“It’s dead on the shelf,” he said. “Before we start talking agreement, we need to know what we’re getting into. If it doesn’t go with the best interests of the community, we won’t support that kind of partnership agreement.”

Mathias said the community was previously flooded and twice forced to relocate.

“We’re not about to allow another project that would force us to relocate. We’re not ready to jeopardize our way of life in our community,” he added. “We’re more than happy to do development with any type of industry, as long as it protects and respects Mother Earth and future generations.”

Benjamin Powless, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Nation

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