Brendan McLaughlin, Earthworks, firstname.lastname@example.org, (206) 892-8832
Christian Torres, Comité Cívico del Valle, email@example.com, (760) 790-6112
EL CENTRO, CA — Today, Earthworks and Comité Cívico del Valle published a new report, Environmental Justice In California’s Lithium Valley, on the environmental impacts Imperial Valley residents may expect if proposed lithium extraction projects move forward.
Demand for lithium, used in electric vehicle batteries, is skyrocketing, and Imperial Valley is home to one of the largest lithium deposits in the world, earning it the moniker “Lithium Valley.” The lithium is found in hot brine more than 1,500 feet under the south shore of the Salton Sea. Geothermal power plants use the brine to produce low-carbon electricity, and three companies are exploring ways to extract lithium from the brine before it is reinjected into the geothermal reservoir.
Direct lithium extraction, as it is known, is promoted as more environmentally friendly than other types of lithium mining—but it has never been used at commercial scales, and communities in Imperial Valley have raised questions about the potential impacts to land, air, water, and public health. While the industry often makes favorable comparisons of how little water direct lithium extraction will use compared to lithium mining in other parts of the world, a lack of transparent data sources makes these comparisons difficult to verify. Imperial County is currently developing a programmatic environmental impact report (PEIR) on the impacts of the lithium industry. A draft is expected to be released for public comment in early 2024.
Environmental Justice in California’s Lithium Valley identifies five areas of impact that must be thoroughly understood and mitigated before any lithium extraction project moves forward:
- AIR QUALITY: Construction and operation of lithium and geothermal facilities in Imperial Valley may impact already degraded air quality through emissions of particulate matter, greenhouse gases, and hydrogen chloride.
- FRESHWATER CONSUMPTION: Lithium extraction projects will consume Colorado River water for cooling and processing. If the lithium industry expands to its planned capacity, it will exceed the freshwater currently allocated by the Imperial Irrigation District for non-agricultural use.
- SALTON SEA DEGRADATION: The Salton Sea is rapidly shrinking, exposing harmful dust contaminated by pesticides and fertilizers. If water is diverted from agriculture to lithium production, it may speed up the shrinking of the Sea, exacerbating the air quality issue and compromising restoration efforts.
- HAZARDOUS WASTE AND MATERIALS: The direct lithium extraction process will produce hazardous byproducts harmful to human health, such as arsenic, lead, and cadmium, that must be safely disposed of.
- SEISMIC ACTIVITY: While lithium extraction itself is unlikely to have an impact on earthquake risk in this seismically active area, further geothermal development might.
“The people of Imperial Valley have a right to know how this development will impact their health and environment,” said Jared Naimark, Earthworks’ California Mining Organizer and one of the report authors. “Disadvantaged communities living near proposed lithium projects already suffer disproportionately from air pollution and other environmental health hazards. They should have a say in any further development in the valley.”
“We work with, live, and play in these communities that are being set up for extraction,” said Christian Torres, Comité Cívico del Valle’s Special Projects Manager and one of the collaborators on the report. “The one takeaway from working with them and fighting alongside them is that they are tired of making decisions without their consideration. This report is one more tool to educate them and bring them to the table to ensure that their lives are made better if extraction is happening in their backyard.”
“This report is important and timely for demystifying speculative technologies and informing the public, especially fenceline communities near the Salton Sea in Imperial Valley, California,” said James J. A. Blair, Associate Professor of Geography and Anthropology at Cal Poly Pomona, and one of the expert reviewers of the report. “It offers a helpful primer on direct lithium extraction from geothermal brine—a technology that is still not proven at a commercial scale—and it identifies potential environmental impacts to air quality, water use, hazardous waste, and seismic activity, as well as cumulative impacts in the Salton Sea region.”
“In Imperial County, California’s most non-white county, we have textbook examples of environmental racism that contribute to the high levels of legacy pollution and water quality issues we face,” said Daniela Flores, co-founder of Imperial Valley Equity & Justice Coalition. “When our organization talks to residents about lithium development, they always raise ongoing concerns about worsening air pollution. This report gives residents some initial answers about the potential environmental impacts. We believe transparency and accountability are crucial for the environmentally responsible development of Lithium Valley, and this report is an important tool to help us achieve that.”
The report is based on a review of academic literature, government documents, and publicly available documents related to specific lithium projects. It was released at Comité Cívico del Valle’s 12th Annual Environmental Health Leadership Summit, which brings community members, non-profits, scientists, academia, policymakers, and philanthropy together to take action on environmental and public health issues that impact environmental justice communities in the Salton Sea region and throughout California.
EARTHWORKS is dedicated to protecting communities and the environment from the adverse impacts of mineral and energy development while promoting sustainable solutions. COMITÉ CÍVICO DEL VALLE was founded on the principle that “Informed People Build Healthy Communities” with the endeavor of improving the lives of disadvantaged communities, informing, educating, and engaging the community’s civic participation.