NEWRY — The richest known hard rock lithium deposit in the world lies a few miles northeast of the ski slopes of Sunday River and not far from Step Falls, where swimmers can wade in shallow pools formed by hundreds of feet of cascading granite ledge.
Smaller deposits have been known in Maine for decades, but this recent discovery, just north of Plumbago Mountain in Newry, is the first to have a major resource potential.
And that potential is staggering: At current market prices, the deposit, thought to contain 11 million tons of ore, is valued at roughly $1.5 billion. Measuring up to 36 feet in length, some of the lithium-bearing crystals are among the largest ever found.
Formed three miles underground during the cooling of granite magma, the crystals rose to the surface over hundreds of millions of years as the mountains above them crumbled and eroded. Now partially exposed, the deposit is estimated to have a higher percentage lithium content by weight than any other in the world.
“This is going to be a very important source of lithium in the future,” said Dr. William “Skip” Simmons, a mineralogist at the University of New Orleans and co-author on a recent paper describing the findings. A more detailed sampling and analysis needs to be done, said Simmons, but the crystals are undeniably “world-class.”
Lithium is prized because it is lightweight and can store lots of energy, making it an important component in batteries for electric vehicles and as reservoirs for excess energy generated by wind turbines and solar panels. Demand for lithium-ion batteries is expected to grow between five- and 10-fold by the end of the decade, and the world must ramp up production quickly to move away from fossil fuels.
This find could contribute to that. But under Maine’s recently enacted mining laws, it’s unclear whether it will ever be extracted.
“We know that the Maine mining laws are such that there’s not one single active mine in Maine,” said Mary Freeman, who owns the land with her husband, Gary, a co-author on the paper describing the find.
“We’d have to get clarification from the state,” said Freeman, when asked whether the couple planned to apply for a mining permit. “They don’t have an area of the rule that explains this kind of work.”
Maine’s metallic mining law was designed to protect the state’s natural resources and keep its water clean. But the state, and its residents, will also need lithium-ion batteries to store energy from wind and solar panels, and run electric vehicles.
Yet lithium is a metal, and state regulations passed in 2017 prohibit mining for metals in open pits of more than three acres, which would be the only way to cost-effectively extract lithium at Plumbago North.
“I don’t know of any underground and manganese or lithium mines in the world,” said Dr. John Slack, a geologist who co-authored a separate upcoming paper on critical minerals in Maine.
“Because those metals have a relatively low cost, in terms of their concentration per ton or per ounce, you need to excavate large volumes of rock cheaply in order to economically and profitably produce the metal you’re interested in.”
Commercial mining has resulted in a long list of disasters, from collapses and explosions to rivers dyed a sickly shade of orange.
Some of the gravest environmental concerns revolve around mining for base metals — such as copper, lead and zinc — which often occur in bands of rock rich in iron sulfides. When exposed to air or water, iron sulfides create sulfuric acid. And once the production of sulfuric acid has begun, it can be difficult to stop, polluting waterways for decades, a phenomenon known as acid mine drainage.
Indeed, Maine’s most famous mines are perhaps better known for their aftermath than what they produced.
In the late 1960s, the Callahan Mining Corporation was given permission to drain a 75-acre coastal estuary in the town of Brooksville and turn the area into an open-pit mine. The company extracted roughly 800,000 tons of copper and zinc before flooding the area, turning it into Goose Pond.
The former mine is now a Superfund site, and a 2013 study by researchers at Dartmouth College found widespread evidence of toxic metals in nearby sediment, water and fish. Cleanup costs, borne by taxpayers, are estimated between $23 million and $45 million.
With events like this in mind, lawmakers, environmental advocacy groups and the Maine Department of Environmental Protection crafted the 2017 metallic mineral exploration and mining law. It passed after years of deliberation and several failed attempts, and is considered one of the most stringent mining laws in the nation.
The law bans metallic mineral mining in, on or under public lands, lakes, outstanding rivers, coastal wetlands and high-value freshwater wetlands. Open-pit mines of more than three acres aren’t allowed, nor are mines that would require treatment of toxic wastewater in perpetuity or the ponds storing wet mine wastes.
In an effort to avoid what happened in Brooksville and elsewhere, the law also requires companies to set aside money for cleaning up or treating any environmental contamination for at least 100 years after the mine’s closure.
In the four years since the law’s passage, only one company, Wolfden Resources Corp. of Canada, has attempted to go through the process. Earlier this month the company withdrew its application for a zoning change required to begin the Department of Environmental Protection permitting process after state commissioners moved to deny the application, citing numerous deficiencies.
Wolfden CEO Ronald Little told commissioners the company planned to submit a new application after hiring a consultant more familiar with Maine’s regulations.
Several geologists applauded the 2017 law, but said it means Maine’s lithium and manganese deposits (Aroostook County’s manganese reserves are thought to be the largest in the country) may never be extracted as long as open-pit mining is banned.
“It starts being extremely expensive if you do underground mining. So it’s just not a viable way to produce a deposit like (Plumbago North),” said Simmons, the University of New Orleans mineralogist.
But those reserves also would not present the same type of potential environmental issues as Wolfden’s proposed project on Pickett Mountain and other base metal sulfide deposits in Maine, such as Bald Mountain. That’s because the Plumbago North deposit does not occur in, or contain, sulfide-rich rocks, said Slack and Simmons. Mining for lithium there would instead be similar to quarrying for granite or gravel.
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