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Lithium Mining - The new kid on the block

- 7/5/12

Michel Ryan

Update: 7/9/2012
A report recently obtained by Canada Free Press details how Canada's Metal Mining Effluent Regulations measure up for addressing the extraction and development of rare earth metals and lithium resources at a time when the mining of these is expected to explode in Canada.

WaterToday has obtained an executive summary of the report commissioned by Environment Canada and conducted by Cheminfo, which was undertaken in anticipation of a coming boom for lithium and rare earth extraction projects on Canadian soil.

The summary explains that rare earth metals and lithium are increasingly important and demanded resources that are used in a wide variety of newer technologies from electric car batteries to state of the art missile guidance systems, and they are studied or assessed together because the elements are almost always found together.

Global demand for rare earth metals and lithium is increasing just as the world's largest producer, China, is beginning to restrict its exports of these elements. The report notes two possible explanations for China's decision to restrict exports, the first being that current export rates, if unabated, will deplete the country's supply of the metals within 30 years. The second explanation suggests that challenges faced in safely collecting and disposing of thorium, a by-product of rare earth metal extraction, may be the cause.

And that's where concern is starting to grow. Not only does Canada have little to no experience in either of the two methods that can be used to extract lithium and rare earth metals, but the report found that thorium (and to a lesser extent uranium) is the most common and problematic pollutant identified in this study resulting from rare earth element mining and processing." In addition, Canada's Metal Mining Effluent Regulations (MMER) do not currently identify thorium or uranium as "deleterious substances" and as a result do not directly address their release into the environment" according to the report's summary.

The report adds, however, that since thorium and uranium do not fall under the MMER regulations, they would be covered under the general prohibition of subsection 36(3) of the Fisheries Act, which prohibits the deposit of deleterious substances into waters frequented by fish." But that was back in March 2012, when the report was concluded, and before the recent passing of Bill C-38, the omnibus budget bill.

You might recall that the Fisheries Act, and how it deals with the deposit of deleterious substances, has recently come under scrutiny as provisions were altered in the federal government's recent Budget Implementation Act, often referred to as the omnibus budget bill.

This has many people fearing that the radioactive by-products of rare earth and lithium mining will not be effectively addressed at all, either by the MMER or Fisheries Act regulations at a time when the exploration and extraction of those resources is expected to increase dramatically.

However, Ramsey Hart, of miningwatch.ca, explained in an email that he disagrees with the contention that thorium and uranium by-products would fall under the Fisheries Act at all. According to Hart, under current MMER regulations any effluents that are not specifically flagged under the MMER list of deleterious substances are given carte blanche so long as the effluents pass the acute lethality test". Mr. Hart explained further that a passing grade for the test is achieved if 50% of exposed rainbow trout...survive the effluent for 96 hours".

That would mean that a mining company would be free to dispose of thorium and uranium by-products of lithium mining in Canadian waterways, so long as half the trout in a test-run of exposure over 96 hours survive the test.

The summary of the report obtained by WaterToday states that there are currently no active lithium mining projects in Canada, but that one project in Quebec is close to becoming active following an environmental assessment. It also lists a number of companies that are already interested in developing other projects to extract lithium and rare earth metals. You might also recall, however, that another part of the recent omnibus legislation for the government's budget involved a weakening of environmental assessment procedures, prompting still more concern among Canadians.

As for the actual extraction of these resources there are two methods currently employed; brine pools and mining. Proposals mentioned in the report include both brine and mining projects under consideration for Canada.

The brine process involves pumping heavily salt-laden water (brine) from underground areas into shallow pools where they undergo solar evaporation over 12-18 months. Different salts and metals crystallize at different times throughout, eventually allowing for a concentrate to be removed and shipped for further processing where the lithium is extracted. According to the report, this method is largely environmentally benign" even though the unwanted by-products of the process are usually pumped back underground. Mining of rare earth metals and lithium is very similar to any other mining operations with the same serious risks of contamination. While the report notes that lithium mining does not necessarily present any unique dangers for by-product contamination, it does state that nearly all by-products or waste materials from rare earth processing are naturally radioactive due to contained thorium" and to a lesser extent, uranium.

The report also noted that because thorium and uranium are "naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM) and their release is not associated with the nuclear fuel cycle, they are not regulated by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission" therefore falling under provincial jurisdiction. And the brine extraction process is not covered by the MMER regulations, because the process is not technically mining, despite producing a metal product.

Thorium is by far the by-product of greatest concern for these development projects, as how to properly capture and dispose of thorium remains a challenge to the industry" and improper handling of it has led to the delay or shutdown of plants in Malaysia, where one case left the developing company with a $100 million bill to clean up the contaminated site, according to the report. Whether these by-products will, in fact, be covered under the Fisheries Act, as said in the report, or whether they will simply be subject to the MMER's acute lethality test as indicated by Mr. Hart is somewhat unclear at this time. However, with the expected jump in projects mining lithium and other rare earth metals in Canada, many citizens are eager to find out before the digging starts.

Michel Ryan

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