With Chile’s residents and Chilean courts ringing the alarm on depleted water supplies in the country’s Atacama salt flat, Albemarle, the world’s top lithium miner had filed a proposal in December to monitor water flows beneath the parched desert floor.
The previously unreported development, underscores the importance miners are placing on their supplies of “white gold” – lithium a battery metal which will play a significant role in the electrification of the mobility.
Car companies have ratcheted up scrutiny in the Atacama, by far the biggest source of supply in South America’s so-called “lithium triangle,” where one lithium producer is locked in a court battle over pumping of brine and a copper miner has opted for pricey desalination over drawing water from local aquifers.
“What we’re seeing is a scrutiny of how lithium is being produced, and particularly, in the Salar de Atacama,” said Ellen Lenny-Pessagno, Albemarle’s Chile manager, while adding, “They want data.”
A team from Volkswagen, EU biggest car producer, also visited the Atacama in January 2020 to scope out the social and environmental impact of mining operations there.
A source at Volkswagen confirmed the trip to Chile to check on local conditions.
VW declined to comment.
“Developing a greener world can’t come at the cost of an entire territory… and culture,” said Juan Carlos Cayo, an attorney for communities in Atacama.
For Albemarle, resolving the water issue is a “business decision”, said Lenny-Pessagnowhile adding that the firm was open to working with other miners on the matter including rival SQM.
“Whatever happens in the salar will ultimately impact our business,” she said and confirmed the plan for a two-decade monitoring network to get a more complete picture of the issue.
Last week, BHP, a miner scrapped its plans to continue pumping water from the Atacama basin to feed its massive Escondida copper mine, the world’s largest. It stated, it would use desalinated water instead.
Albemarle has also shelved long term plans to expand its operations at Atacama following questions from regulators in 2018 about technologies that would allow the company to produce more lithium without pumping more brine.
Operations of Albemarle’s rival SQM, are also in limbo after a plan to lessen its environmental impact was thrown out by judges who said a green light from regulators had relied on junk science and warned about a “high level of scientific uncertainty” about the behavior of the Atacama’s water table.
SQM has appealed to the Chilean Supreme Court.
A decision is pending.