Gaston County residents and commissioners vented their frustration Tuesday evening at a lithium company that hopes to open a pit mine about 25 miles west of Charlotte.
Over the past five years, Piedmont Lithium has attracted $140 million in investments, promised an automaker 53,000 tons of lithium-rich ore and purchased dozens of homes from county residents. But until Tuesday night, it had never spoken publicly to the community — leaving residents with numerous unanswered questions.
The company’s CEO, Keith Phillips, told a packed audience at the Board of Commissioners meeting that Piedmont Lithium had wanted to finalize its plans before coming forward.
“I was advised a couple of years ago — may have been bad advice, maybe I shouldn’t have taken it — that we shouldn’t waste the commissioners’ time,” he said. “We shouldn’t come in front of them until we knew what we wanted to do.”
Some commissioners said that plan backfired.
“No company that I’ve ever dealt with has left, I think, such a bad taste in our citizens’ mouths,” commissioner Tracy Philbeck said.
‘The cart before that horse’
Piedmont said it hopes to open its mine on more than 2,000 acres of woods, farmland and homes east of Cherryville. Roughly 500 people would be employed at the facilities, at an average salary of over $90,000 a year, Phillips said.
The company started purchasing land in 2016, according to its annual report. Since then, dozens of properties have been listed as sold to Piedmont’s corporate office address in Belmont, Spectrum News reported.
The company also secured a five-year contract with carmaker Tesla Inc. last fall, Reuters reported. Piedmont promised to supply Tesla with 53,000 tons of spodumene concentrate, a lithium-rich ore, beginning sometime between July 2022 and July 2023.
Piedmont also has attracted $140 million in investments, a fraction of its $840 million goal, Phillips said.
But Piedmont has yet to apply for a zoning permit to open a mine in Gaston County. And many of those present on Tuesday expressed frustration over the company’s lack of communication with residents and commissioners over the first several years of the project.
“(This is) the biggest case in my 23 years sitting here of putting the cart before that horse,” said county board Chair Tom Keigher.
Phillips took personal responsibility for the commissioners’ frustration.
“We haven’t done a good job — I blame myself — with the community, with the commissioners,” he said. “We aim to remedy that.”
While several county commissioners criticized Piedmont’s failure to communicate, many residents — some dressed in red in protest — took aim at the company’s proposed mine.
Lisa Baldwin, who lives near the proposed site, presented commissioners with a Change.org petition called Stop Piedmont Lithium that had received over 1,600 signatures.
Baldwin said she was worried about the mine forcing her from her property, which her family has lived on for nine generations. She said it was “frightening” that a company like Piedmont could “use scare tactics to drive people from their homes, pay a pittance for their property and then bulldoze and burn their homes.”
Other residents voiced a variety of concerns: environmental damage; groundwater contamination; concerns about dust, noise and light pollution.
“The few gains Piedmont Lithium is promising will not be worth the cost to our county’s quality of life,” said Libby Carpenter, who lives near the proposed mine.
Phillips did not directly respond to any residents’ comments, but he addressed several common concerns in a presentation at the start of the meeting. He promised that no wastewater would be discharged into surrounding waterways, that the company would invest in a dust management system and that the sound of blasting would be muffled by berms and foliage.
A few residents at the meeting were intrigued by Phillips’ promises of high-paying jobs and an economic boost.
“We’re sitting on a gold mine,” said Patt Martin, who lives in Gastonia.