Spain - lithium treasure in the biotope

Lithium treasure in the biotope

How it might look: in the background the landscape near Cáceres, in front of it the lithium mine of Greenbushes (Australia)

Photos: Cristina Quicler / AFP / Getty Images, Carla Gottgens / Bloomberg / Getty Images

The swarm of black vultures slowly circling over the Sierra de la Mosca looks eerie. The animals make the hearts of nature lovers beat faster, as they belong to a species of bird that has been endangered for a long time. At the end of January, the Extremaduras Zoological Society submitted its report to the regional government, which revealed that black storks, imperial eagles and other rare species had also been sighted again in the green oasis outside the gates of the city of Cáceres. For zoologists, these are reasons enough to declare the small range of hills a protected area. But instead of such a biotope, a huge crater could soon gape. Europe's second largest lithium deposit is suspected to be in the nature park. A joint venture called Tecnologia Extremeña del Litio wants to mine the coveted metal in open-cast mining and process it on site into lithium hydroxide suitable for batteries. Behind the bulky name are the Australian company Infinity Lithium and the Spanish construction company Sacyr, which is involved through its mining subsidiary Valoriza Minería.

What was left was poisonous sludge

There is a housing estate less than a kilometer from the planned mining site. The pilgrimage site of “La Virgen de la Montaña”, the patron saint of Cáceres, is 500 meters away and the old town, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is only three kilometers. “I don't know of any mine in the world that is so close to a city of 100.000,” says Santiago Marquez. “What happens if one day everything is exploited and the land can no longer be used? Who guarantees us that operations will continue and not close prematurely because of a drop in prices, as happened with the nickel mine in Aguablanca? ”In 2016, Rio Narcea Recursos, also a subsidiary of Sacyr, began mining the raw material a good 200 kilometers south of Cáceres prematurely. The nickel prices have fallen too much, so the reasoning. There remained a 300 meter deep hole, a lake with toxic sludge, a spoil dump and 300 unemployed people.

The view from the rocky ridge stretches far in all four directions, Santiago Marquez kneels to pick up a few boulders: Quartzite is a very hard, resilient rock. You will need a lot of dynamite to get lithium here. This was referred to in an environmental impact study, which was carefully studied by his community platform "Salvemos la Montaña" (Let's save the mountain). The effects of the mining project on the fauna were summarized as follows: "Destruction of the habitat, deteriorated air quality, noise pollution, running over animals."

The fact that the city administration published this study on its website in 2018 was a thorn in the side of the operators. The managers asked then mayor Elena Nevado to remove the document. It remained tough, the managing directors David Valls and Marco Antonio Sosa did not succeed in convincing them to mine lithium. "There were no clear answers to questions such as: Will other industries be settled in the city, how should the landscape be restored after 25 years of dismantling?", Nevado justified her refusal.

Hope for the EU

Judging by melodious, noble words, the citizens of Cáceres have a powerful ally in Brussels when it comes to nature conservation and biodiversity. "Only healthy nature can defy climate change and epidemics," said EU Commission President von der Leyen when she presented the EU Biodiversity Strategy 2030 last year. The population of wild animals has declined by 40 percent worldwide in the past 60 years, one million species are threatened with extinction, a consequence of man-made destruction, it says in the text.

Chaves hopes for the EU. She is also committed to the citizens' platform. She was all the more surprised to learn that the EU supported the lithium project. In March 2020, Infinity Lithium will publish a notice for the Sydney Stock Exchange with the European flag next to the company logo. "Infinity (sic!) Is the first lithium project to secure European funds," it read below. Accordingly, EIT Innoenergy, a privately and publicly financed company, is participating in the San José lithium project with 800.000 euros. When the deal was closed in June, the share gained a good 100 percent. "We reported this to the EU anti-fraud office," says Chaves. But the corruption hunters did not come across any such project that received EU funding.

Finally, the citizens' platform turned to the EU Parliament and demanded that the abuse of European institutions by private companies be investigated and, if possible, prevented. The petitions committee of the EU legislature, Chaves is informed at the beginning of September, has forwarded the matter to the office of Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič - an answer is still pending, delayed because of the pandemic, it is said.

For Šefčovič, lithium mining at the gates of Cáceres is particularly desirable for one reason: Europe is "very dependent on a few countries outside the EU for raw materials". Electric cars and energy storage alone would cause lithium demand in the EU countries to increase 2050-fold by 60. In order to secure the supply of Europe with strategic raw materials, the resources available on the continent would have to be used, according to the Slovak - "using the highest environmental and social standards". Four key projects for “sustainable mining” in Europe should cover four fifths of the EU's lithium requirements by 2025, one of which is in Cáceres.

Infinity Lithium promises many jobs there and the longed-for industrial development in one of the economically weakest areas of Spain. "With the lithium mining and the processing plant, over 30 direct and indirect jobs will be created and 1.000 million euros in investments will be made over the 280-year period," the designated operator advertises. There would be a regional value chain from the raw material to the finished battery. There are concrete plans to build battery factories in the Basque Country and Valencia, but nothing of the kind is known in Cáceres.

Luis Salaya, socialist and one of the youngest mayors in Spain at the age of 33 in the town hall of Cáceres, shares his predecessor Nevado's negative attitude towards the lithium mine. This is a disadvantageous project for the city, it is a shame for a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the local economy that needs tourism. "Lithium mining in opencast mines and in this dimension would jeopardize more jobs than create new ones." On the other hand, the region suffers from the exodus of young people who try their luck in Madrid or elsewhere. In the meantime, UNESCO has also got wind of the project, has presented to the Spanish Ministry of Culture and was told that there was no dismantling permit yet, everything was under observation.

This permit is granted by the regional mining authority, but the city of Cáceres will have a say. It assumes that, according to current spatial planning, the relevant terrain may not be used industrially and that all attempts to rededicate it have so far been unsuccessful. Managing director Valls is nevertheless confident. "If the environmental assessment is positive, the city is under pressure." He doubts in any case whether a majority in Cáceres is against the project. "There is a small group of affected residents who make a lot of noise, but that does not mean that they stand for the majority of the citizens," says the trained geologist. Numbers cannot confirm this view. The citizens' platform has collected 100.000 signatures against the project in the 35.000-inhabitant municipality. In the city government, 21 out of 25 city councilors also raised their objection. And even if the decision of the mining authority is positive, Mayor Salaya knows his fellow party member Guillermo Fernández Vara, the regional president of Extremadura, is behind him. "The residents of Cáceres have the last word, he assured me," said Salaya. The citizens' platform does not want to rely on it. “As long as all procedures are not shelved, we will not find a peaceful sleep,” says Chaves.

Linda Osusky is a freelance writer. She lives and works in Barcelona