WASHINGTON, D.C. – A new report highlights policies to avoid sacrificing local communities and ecosystems as the world ramps up the transition to clean energy and electric vehicles which rely on lithium and other critical mined resources. Exhausted: How We Can Stop Lithium Mining from Depleting Water Resources, Draining Wetlands, and Harming Communities in South America reveals the complex impacts of the current lithium mining industry in the high altitude, arid area shared by Chile, Argentina, Bolivia – the Puna de Atacama.
The present and predominant method of extracting lithium in the Puna de Atacama region, the evaporation method, involves pumping enormous amounts of brine—highly salty water—out from under the area’s salt flats. As a result, already-scarce water resources are disappearing, impacting people’s livelihoods and the unique environment in severe ways.
The new report, released by researchers from the NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), California State Polytechnic University, Pomona (CPP), the Plurinational Observatory of Andean Salt Flats (OPSAL), and the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), details examples from different salt flats in South America and offers eight key recommendations for communities, governments and the private sector throughout the lithium-ion battery supply chain to avoid these negative impacts while still advancing action to combat global warming:
- Respect and ensure free, prior and informed consent for Indigenous and local communities.
- Prioritize Indigenous knowledge and science of local ecosystems.
- Strengthen environmental standards for mining operations and monitor activities.
- Regulate and monitor the use of brines and make data about local water resources available and transparent.
- Encourage, invest in, and implement alternative ways to obtain lithium (e.g., reusing or recycling batteries; geothermal direct lithium extraction if developed in a just and sustainable manner).
- Ensure that companies throughout the battery supply chain require better practices from their suppliers.
- Apply longer-term solutions that reduce the need for new batteries, such as public transit, biking and walking.
- Enforce a moratorium on brine evaporation through application of the precautionary principle.
The report argues that brine evaporation in particular is not a just, responsible, or even an efficient way of addressing the urgency of the climate crisis. Better solutions exist and should be implemented as soon as possible.
“Brine evaporation is neither just nor sustainable: it fails to address the climate and ecological emergency,” said James J. A. Blair, chief author of the report and Assistant Professor at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. “Green technologies are not exempt from the responsibility to protect people and the planet.”
“Climate solutions must neither damage ecosystems nor compromise the health and sovereignty of local communities,” said Ramón Balcázar, OPSAL. “Lithium extraction is harming Indigenous and rural communities that are already severely impacted by climate change—hence we need stronger regulations that prioritize community needs and independent recommendations like these.”
“The impacts of the climate crisis are being felt by everyone around the world, but climate change does not affect everyone equally,” said Amanda Maxwell, Managing Director, International Program at NRDC. “As we address the climate crisis, we must ensure that equity is at the foundation of the solutions and that already vulnerable communities are not harmed in the transition to cleaner technologies.”
“Large-scale mining is depleting aquifers across this region, and brine evaporation adds significantly to those concerns,” said Javiera Barandiarán, Associate Professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “The brine extraction process also transforms the landscape by leaving behind hills of salt on the surface of the salt flat and contaminating the environment with an array of toxic chemicals including diesel, magnesium, lime, organotin, and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) from pond linings and tubing—further impacting the health of people and biodiversity.”
The full report is available at https://www.nrdc.org/resources/exhausted-how-we-can-stop-lithium-mining-depleting-water-resources-draining-wetlands-and
NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 3 million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world's natural resources, public health, and the environment. NRDC has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Bozeman, MT, and Beijing. Visit us at www.nrdc.org and follow us on Twitter @NRDC.
California State Polytechnic University, Pomona (CPP), located in Los Angeles County, is known for high-quality education infused with hands-on learning experiences and innovative teaching and student support programs. Part of the California State University system, Cal Poly Pomona is among the nation’s top performers in giving students the skills to advance up the economic ladder.
Observatorio Plurinacional de Salares Andinos (OPSAL) is a cross-border network that brings together indigenous leaders, socio-environmental activists, and researchers around the protection of Andean salt flats and wetlands, unique and fragile ecosystems, reserves of life and a source of community livelihood in the Puna Region. OPSAL shares its concerns and action strategies with a growing number of individuals and organizations that see in climate change and the advance of mega-mining of lithium, copper and other so-called green metals, a direct threat for life in the salt flats. From this reality, the Observatory highlights the deep contradictions that underlie the discourses and initiatives that, at a national and global level, promote the decarbonization of industrial societies – holding major responsibility for climate change- at the cost of dispossession and socio-environmental degradation in indigenous and rural territories of the Global South.
The University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) is a leading research institution that also provides a comprehensive liberal art learning experience. UCSB’s faculty boasts six Nobel Laureates in chemistry, physics, and economics, including the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physics awarded to Professor of Materials and Electrical and Computer Engineering, Shuji Nakamura. Teaching and research go hand-in-hand at UC Santa Barbara. In 2014-2015, UC Santa Barbara became the first Association of American Universities (AAU) member that is a nationally recognized Hispanic-Serving Institution, reflecting the campus’ strong commitment to both diversity and academic excellence.