Toxic Dust and Brine: Minerals for Energy Storage

We’re entering the age of massive mobile electric energy storage units, in the form of lithium ion batteries in vehicles. These tremendous battery packs make up a significant fraction of the weight of electric vehicle, and can contain elements like cobalt, graphite, manganese, and nickel, in addition to lithium and many others. While electric vehicles make up only a little over 2% of global vehicle sales, these numbers will likely surge, if all gas-powered vehicles are retired soon. We must interrogate the current systems for mining of these materials, including impacts on land, water, air and workers, in order to assure that any increased mining can occur in as just a manner as possible.

Co Co.: Congolese Cobalt, Copper and Coltan

In the last chapter, we showed how cobalt is used to help to stabilize and extend the lifetime of lithium ion batteries, which are each technological shortcomings of the current batteries. A 100 kWh electric vehicle battery can have up to 20 kg of cobalt in it. In 2020, 67% of cobalt mined worldwide was from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Second in the world, Russia extracted less than one-tenth of this amount.

The DRC is rich in other minerals as well. Coltan is an ore from which niobium and tantalum are extracted, each used in energy technologies. Copper is an excellent conductor of electricity and is used in many aspects of renewable energy systems. Tungsten, tin, gold and diamonds are among the other valuable substances that are mined in the country that is said to be the richest in the world for mineral resources.

By more traditional definitions of wealth, DRC is one of the poorest countries in the world. The country consistently ranks in the bottom five in per capita gross domestic product measured by purchasing power parity, the measure that most approximates what people can buy. The country has also suffered the horrors of several civil wars, as well as a brutal history of colonialism.

Many Congolese miners work in toxic conditions that slowly degrade their health, where there’s also a high risk of accidents. Cobalt appears in heterogenite, which is mined in the reddish brown soils in the southern part of the country. In addition to several large corporate mines, there are countless artisanal mines, which are set up informally by prospectors working independently. A full set of mining equipment costs a Congolese around $50, so a farmer who is considering becoming a miner must make a substantial investment, and their choice is not always reversible. Those who left their plows in the field to dig during cobalt or coltan booms have often found themselves in dire straits when mineral prices decrease. 

In a neighborhood in the city of Kolwezi, a resident was digging a pit toilet in their yard and struck a particularly rich vein of heterogenite. Fast forward a few months, and the entire community is dotted with artisanal mines, in the yards of residents who still were living there. Since workers often don’t have protective equipment like gloves or masks, there are severe health effects. Even non-miners in the area of mines are affected, by the dust that settles. Since children are especially affected by toxic pollutants, neighborhood mines often hurt the local youth the worst. These mines can reach 30 meters deep (in other locales artisanal mines can reach 100 meters), and snake underneath other houses, often with little support. The risk of collapse is substantial. Women and children as young as 7 work to haul, wash and sort rocks.

Amnesty International’s 2016 report accused companies of turning a blind eye to human rights violations within their supply chain. In the words of Siddhartha Kara, a modern slavery expert who has studied the DRC mines, “any company sourcing cobalt from DRC must establish an independent, third-party system of verification that all mineral supply chains are cleansed of exploitation, cruelty, slavery, and child labour. They must invest whatever is needed to ensure the decent pay, safe and dignified working conditions, healthcare, education and general wellbeing of the people whose cheap labour they rely on.” Lawsuits have been filed against Apple, Google, Microsoft, Dell, and Tesla, and these companies have filed motions to dismiss. Recent industry-led “clean cobalt” initiatives have been criticized for ineffectiveness and passing on costs of monitoring programs to small-scale miners. 

The formal mining operations in the region outfit their workers with safety equipment, but pay extremely small wages. Subcontractors are often used as a layer of disconnect between companies who claim to monitor their supply chain and highly exploited workers. The companies participating in these operations claim to are frequently criticized for reneging on promises to contribute to local infrastructure, and for highly exploitative contracts that leave the DRC with only a fraction of the worth of the mineral. 

All Eyes on Li

Depending on the chemistry, a 100 kWh long-range electric vehicle battery pack can contain 10-20 kg of the third-lightest element, lithium. To replace over 1.4 billion cars worldwide (including over 300 million in the US) could potentially require tens of millions of tons of lithium. Proven reserves are estimated by BP to be around 19 million tons, with almost 60% in the high deserts of Chile and Argentina. BP’s figures don’t include Bolivia, which likely has another 9 million tons. Currently the largest suppliers, in order, are Australia, Chile, China and Argentina. 

Picture yourself in some of the driest places on Earth, like the Atacama Desert of Chile, where some dry river beds indicate that there’s been no rainfall in over 100,000 years. Flamingos thrive in this unique environment, where they slurp up shrimp from the salty brine, giving them their characteristic pink color. Lithium is present in these salt flats (“salares” in Spanish) when the element has leached from nearby rock. To access the most metal, prospectors pump brine up from underground aquifers. Brine sits for months within evaporation ponds, as water evaporates into the arid air above. The remaining goop is filtered and moved to other ponds for further distillation, and after 12-18 months, useful lithium compounds can be extracted. 

Water is not easy to come by in such dry regions. But the lithium extraction process is hugely water intensive, requiring 1.5 million liters of water per ton of Li (15,000 liters per 100 kWh battery pack). 65% of water in the Salar de Atacama goes to mining, which leaves Indigenous quinoa farmers and delicate wetlands with less. 

Lithium also exists in deposits in solid rock, and when mined causes environmental damage similar to those discussed in previous chapters. Local communities are fighting back. An open pit lithium mine planned near the Nevada-Oregon border has drawn resistance from the Shoshone and Paiute peoples whose history and livelihood are on those lands. 

Hydrochloric and sulfuric acids are used in lithium processing, and waste products can leak. In China, where much of the current extraction occurs, a leak from a lithium operation into the Liqi River in Tibet killed fish and cows, and led to large protests from Indigenous peoples.

A mining strategy that is perhaps the least invasive is geothermal brine extraction, where hot water containing lithium is brought up from underground for processing. These mines can be coupled with geothermal electricity and heat to produce clean, load-following power as well as lithium. A mine and geothermal energy project of this type is now online in the Salton Sea in the south Coachella Valley in California, an ever-shrinking lake that has been home to many an environmental disaster. Previous efforts in this region have proved too difficult or too costly, and it remains to be seen whether this less invasive technology will be successful at meeting the ever-growing lithium demand.

Internationalism

As Prof. Thea Riofrancos, author of Resource Radicals, has stated, resource extraction locations are not purely determined by geology and the location of mineral deposits. In fact, it’s no coincidence that the most marginalized communities & Indigenous communities are where many of the most precious resources are mined; these are communities that are considered disposable. 

Local communities, though, fight back when they are being exploited, building impressive grassroots resistance to extractors. How to those outside the local area build solidarity with these environmental justice struggles? What does history tell us about the role of outside influences in resource conflicts?

Echoes of the past still resonate within current events, so we’ll work backwards from the present. In 2021, Cristina Dorador Ortiz, a Chilean biologist, was elected as one of 155 citizens tasked with writing a new Chilean constitution. She ran on an anti-extractivism platform, citing her own research on the delicate hotspots of microbial activity within salt flats, and her own experiences with pollution. 

“We have to establish an ecological constitution that acknowledges that human beings are part of nature. Doing so will affect how we relate to extractivism. We should encourage new types of economy, smaller scale, and think about the future.” — Cristina Dorador Ortiz, Chilean biologist and elected official.

But why does Chile’s constitution need to be reformed? The current constitution was written during the Pinochet dictatorship, installed after a U.S.-backed coup overthrew the Salvador Allende government on Sept 11, 1973. The Pinochet years were staggeringly brutal: over 3000 killed and nearly 30,000 tortured during his 17 years in power. The 2010 documentary Nostalgia for the Light tells the stories of women who search for the bones of their disappeared relatives in the same deserts where lithium mining occurs. The Pinochet-era constitution entrenched military power and oligarchs, banned left-wing political parties, shuffled electoral districts to overrepresent his party, 

makes it difficult to implement progressive reforms, instead strongly protecting the interests of big business. 

Why did the US care about Chile enough to undermine their democratically elected leader in the 1970s? These actions followed in the long tradition of American governments supporting corporate interests abroad at the expense of the local people. Like the overthrow of the Guatemalan government in 1954 after conflicts with the United Fruit Company (now Chiquita)

 

Neoliberal market reforms of economist Milton Friedman were first tested in Chile during Pinochet government, without the consent of the people. There were huge increases in inequality in Chile during this era. The constitution has made reforms very difficult, even 30 years after dictatorship ended

  • What’s going to happen with constitution?
    • Expect many progressive reforms, including investment in education, health care, decreased dependence on central banks, more self-governance of resources, rules about private land/water rights, jobs

Those in the Global North need to respect sovereignty of Chile. South-South partnerships, more local industries to create higher-valued products with the raw materials

The US was also behind the assassination of the first democratically elected prime minister of the DRC (then the Republic of Congo), Patrice Lumumba. The commonality between this country and Chile is that the elected leaders came from people-oriented, leftist, sovereignty movements that were generally against exploitation of their people by outside business interests. These are just two of the many countries with democratically elected leftist governments that the US government helped to destabilize.

Militarism is often mentioned as a problem for climate change because of its huge carbon footprint. It is also important to de-militarize for climate justice, because the targets of military operations are often justice-based advocates. Empowering leaders and movements from the Global South so that their solutions are at the forefront on the international stage is another way to assure that sovereignty in the Global South is achieved.

  • How will Global North respond to justice/sovereignty movements in Global South?
    • More coups? Or solidarity from workers who are also struggling from neoliberalism?

Connect

Yes to Life, No to Mining is “a global solidarity network of and for communities, organisations and networks who are standing up for their Right to Say No to mining and advancing life-sustaining, post-extractive alternatives.” YLNM has over 70 member organizations around the world in its coalition. 

 

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