Gavin Stewart
 
| The Gaston Gazette

When Randy Hastings looks off into his property off Aderholdt Road in northwest Gaston County, where his ancestors settled more than 150 years ago, he sees a rural paradise where he and his family can fish, farm, and do as they please.

But Hastings, 68, and his family will likely have to leave their home place once a 1,200-acre lithium mine made of several open pits takes shape just south of the Lincoln County line in the coming years.

Piedmont Lithium, a lithium mining startup that recently signed a deal with American electric car manufacturer Tesla, was founded in 2016 by Taso Arima and geologist Lamont Leatherman.

Leatherman graduated from Lincolnton High School and found an interest in geology after studying at Appalachian State University, where he graduated from in 1988.

Since then, Leatherman, now a resident of British Columbia, Canada, has worked for several international companies mining for iron ore, gold, and other metals.

In 2009, Leatherman attended a conference in Toronto that would pique his interest in lithium.

“Our industry was struggling. The markets were down,” Leatherman said of the precious metals. “There was one little buzz on the floor of this conference, and it was lithium.”

Leatherman and Canadian mining company North Arrow Minerals began studying the Carolina Tin-Spodumene Belt – a belt of lithium-rich veins stretching through Gaston and Cleveland counties from Lincolnton to Gaffney, South Carolina – which has a lithium mining history dating back to the 1950s. North Arrow eventually lost interest in the area, according to Leatherman.

Arima, a native of Australia, with ample experience in investment firms and the mining industry, called Leatherman in 2016.

“It was a cold call. I brought him down here and gave him a bit of a tour. We hit it off and resurrected the project,” Leatherman said. “That leads us up to where we are today.” Arima moved to Charlotte from New York in 2020.

Arima and Leatherman’s goal is to incite the first domestic lithium supply chain within the United States by mining for spodumene – a mineral rich with lithium – and producing battery-quality chemicals.

From iPhones to electric cars, the batteries inside the devices known and loved by Americans can’t be powered without lithium.

Demand for lithium has fluctuated over the last several decades, but the growing popularity of all-electric cars and electronic devices is expected to drive lithium demand through 2030.

“With the demand for electric cars, hand tools, smart phones, tablets and whatever, there’s going to be a bigger demand for [lithium] going forward,” said Donny Hicks, executive director of the Gaston County Economic Development Commission.

Big mining companies like Albemarle U.S., which last mined for spodumene in Kings Mountain as Foote Mineral Co. in the early-to-mid 1980s, also supply lithium chemicals to a plethora of other industries.

Lithium can be found in pharmaceuticals, enamels and ceramics – such as a glass-ceramic cooktop – and even in dyes used for coloring paper and clothing.

Tesla deal

In September, Piedmont Lithium, led by CEO Keith Phillips, agreed to sell a third of its total production of spodumene concentrate (also known as SC6) to Tesla each year for five years, making Piedmont Lithium’s future mine in northwest Gaston County an important piece of the battery materials supply chain.

Piedmont Lithium plans to produce 160,000 metric tons of SC6 each year for five years. The company hopes to diversify its clientele by selling the other two-thirds of its production to U.S. electric vehicle auto makers, such as Ford Motor Co. and General Motors, according to Austin Devaney, the company’s vice president of sales and marketing.

SC6 from Piedmont Lithium will be used to power at least 350,000 Tesla cars each year, Devaney said.

To put that in perspective, Tesla delivered 367,500 cars – the majority of them manufactured at Tesla’s factory in Fremont, Calif. — in 2019 globally.

Tesla’s Model 3 sedan alone accounted for nearly half of the total electric vehicles sold in the U.S. during 2019 at 154,840, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

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In total, Tesla sold more than 189,000 vehicles in the U.S. Other auto makers sold 326,600 electric vehicles in the U.S. in 2019. Tesla’s global production in 2020 was expected to exceed 470,000.

SC6 production is only projected to make up 10% to 20% of Piedmont Lithium’s total revenues. Piedmont Lithium expects to also process several by-products – mica, quartz, feldspar – found in the proposed mine and sell them to non-battery industries, like glass, cosmetics, ceramics, and automotive paint.

The Tesla agreement begins upon delivery of the first product, which Piedmont Lithium expects will be delivered between July 2022 and July 2023. If all goes well, Tesla and Piedmont Lithium can agree to extend the deal another five years.

It’s a game-changing deal, according to Patrick Brindle, vice president of project management for Piedmont Lithium.

Many large mining companies spend too much time, money and resources shipping minerals overseas to be processed only to come back to its country of origin in the form of a product, Brindle said.

For example, more than 80% of the world’s lithium hydroxide is produced in China, according to Piedmont Lithium.

Brindle said that system is no longer realistic, and luckily, Tesla CEO Elon Musk agrees.

“That doesn’t work,” Brindle said. “Now, having a business partner like Tesla, we can start smaller, we can have a local domestic customer, and we can feed into an American supply chain.”

Piedmont Lithium’s total capital investment should be between $500 million and $600 million, which includes the construction of a processing plant in Kings Mountain and the only active lithium mine east of the Mississippi River right here in Gaston County.

Around 10 people currently work for Piedmont Lithium, but Brindle estimates the Kings Mountain plant and the 1,200-acre mine will eventually employ 300 people.

Those employees will make an average of $60,000 a year and receive roughly $30,000 in various benefits, according to Devaney.

Rural Gaston County

Following years of testing and planning along the Carolina Tin-Spodumene Belt, Piedmont Lithium project leaders set their eyes on Hephzibah Church Road, just a few miles south of the Lincoln County line.

The road connects to Dallas Cherryville Highway about six miles east of Cherryville.

Though the amount of affected mining acreage is projected to be smaller, the entire project spans 74 parcels of land, mostly consisting of thick forest, fields, and some homes along Hephzibah Church Road and Whitesides Road.

Gaston Land Co., a Piedmont Lithium holding company, owns roughly 32 parcels at the future mining site, though the company has signed lease and option-to-purchase agreements with other home and land owners.

This gives Piedmont Lithium access to the future mining land before Gaston Land Co. buys the land, depending on whether or not land owners strike a deal with Piedmont Lithium.

In 2019, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gave Piedmont Lithium the only federal approval it needs to mine.

Legally, all that stands between Piedmont Lithium and its full-blown lithium operation is full land ownership, rezoning and approval from the state Department of Energy, Mineral and Land Resources.

Not the first local lithium mine

Mining certainly isn’t new to Gaston, Cleveland, and Lincoln counties. Companies have long mined the area for lithium and a number of commodities.

Between the three counties there are more than 70 active and inactive mines of various sizes, according to the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Albemarle U.S. – the world’s No. 1 lithium producer formerly known as Foote Mineral – runs a lithium production site near Interstate 85 not far from the state line, though the miner recently halted its U.S. operations until 2021 following a steep drop in profit and weak lithium prices, according to Mining.com.

Foote Mineral opened the 881-acre mine and production site in the early 1950s. Then, lithium was most noted for the aircraft manufacturing industry, according to the Oct. 17, 1951, edition of The Charlotte Observer.

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Albemarle U.S. no longer mines lithium in Kings Mountain. Instead, the company mines in Chile, as well as Silver Park, Nevada – the only active lithium mine in the United States today – and raw materials are processed into a variety of lithium-rich products at the Kings Mountain plant.

“Mining at Kings Mountain was ceased after Foote Mineral began production from the more economical brine deposits in Chile,” Albemarle U.S. spokeswoman Hailey Quinn wrote in a statement.

In 1954, Lithium Corp. of America, which later became FMC Corp., opened one of the country’s largest lithium mining operations in Gaston, Cleveland and Lincoln counties, according to documents at the Gaston County Public Library.

That company bought 2,000 acres of property and opened five lithium mines – including the historical Hallman-Beam pit off of Tryon Courthouse Road between Cherryville and Bessemer City – from Grover to Lincolnton, according to The Charlotte Observer clippings dating back to March 1954.

The Hallman-Beam mine was the primary source for most of the world’s lithium from the 1950s to the 1990s, according to Piedmont Lithium.

At the time, the Observer described the mines and refining plant as a mammoth $7 million lithium mining project. A $7 million project in 1954 would amount to roughly $67 million today, according to to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Livent, which split from FMC Corp. in 2019, now mines lithium in Argentina, but the company still processes lithium chemicals at a plant along N.C. 161 in Bessemer City.

“We had a good lithium industry going in North Carolina,” said DEMLR Mining Specialist David Miller. Miller will be responsible for reviewing and approving Piedmont Lithium’s state mining application.

All eyes used to be on Gaston and Cleveland counties for its world-class lithium resources, but companies have since ventured to other continents either to enjoy other deposits or cheaper extraction processes, Miller said.

“It was cheaper to go get those brines from the Andes [Mountains], haul them over here and process them than it was to extract mineral. This is so true for a lot of the mineral industry across the United States,” he said.

Once the Piedmont Lithium’s Gaston County mine reaches its potential, it’s expected to be biggest open-pit mining operation of any kind in the area to date.

“The closest thing you’re going to have [to that size] is something in Spruce Pine (Mitchell County),” Miller said.

Peace and quiet

Lewis Guignard has always preferred to live where it’s peaceful and quiet. He likes living surrounded by trees where he can’t see his neighbors and they can’t see him.

Leatherman first visited Guignard’s property, which surrounds Glynlaurel Lane off Hephzibah Church Road, with a lithium exploration startup around a decade ago, Guignard recalls. That company was North Arrow Minerals.

North Arrow drilled on the property and extracted mineral to test its contents. That company’s time in rural Gaston County was short-lived.

But Leatherman later came back to Guignard’s 115-acre property with Piedmont Lithium behind him.

Guignard, who owns the trucking business Gray Rock Transport in Statesville, remembers being the first property owner in the project area to sign a contract with the company four years ago.

“Being in the trucking industry, you get to be around a lot of industries,” he said. “This is not one you’d ever run into in a normal course of business. So I wanted to know what it was all about.”

Fast forward four years to August 2020, Gaston Land Co. purchased Guignard’s 4,400 square-feet home and the surrounding property for a total $3 million, according to Gaston GIS.

Aside from inconvenience of finding a new home, Guignard was happy to accept Piedmont Lithium’s offer. He doesn’t feel tied to the land.

“I don’t miss anywhere. I’m not a sentimental person,” he said. “I lived out in the woods. I’ll go find me some more woods.”

Deep roots

Though Guignard was eager to pack his bags and find land to live on in Wilkes County, Randy Hastings’ roots run much deeper. He’s spent all 68 years of his life on his ancestors’ property.

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Hastings’ grandfather owned the majority of the land around the Aderholdt Road and Hastings Road area. That land was passed down to his parents and other family members, and then to Hastings and his cousins.

Hastings, who worked at several Harris Teeter stores over the course of 35 years until her retired in 2007, built his home next door to his parents, who’ve since died, and his sister now lives next door.

“I gave my son a piece of property out here on the other side and he put a house up. I’ve got a cousin who lives on the hill, my other cousin lives behind him, and then I’ve got another cousin who lives [above] him,” Hastings laughed.

Behind Hastings’ home on Aderholdt Road, which borders the east side of the proposed mining site, there’s a small pond where he enjoys fishing in his downtime. Aside from the occasional whirring of a core drilling machine, Hastings calls it a peaceful paradise.

That faint noise isn’t bound to go away anytime soon as Piedmont Lithium prepares for the mine.

“I’ve hunted and fished all this place down through here. I’m pretty well attached. I really don’t want to go anywhere else, but I don’t want to live next to a mine either,” he said.

Hastings has spent most of his retirement farming his land, growing apples, peaches, pecans and various produce and selling his products at farmers markets in Cherryville and Lincolnton.

But Hastings stopped farming and his focus shifted from farming to caring for his wife, Donna, who suffered from dementia. Donna died in March at age 63.

“We both worked real hard on this place and the house and all. It about killed me seeing her go seeing how hard she worked to get what we got,” Hastings said.

Piedmont Lithium has made several attempts to buy Hastings’ property from him since Leatherman and Arima launched the project.

Hastings wants $1 million for his 10-acre property. Over the years, Piedmont Lithium has come closer to making a deal, but Hastings said a deal has yet to be made.

“They haven’t come across with what I think I ought to have,” he said.

“I go by what it’s going to cost me to pack up, get another place, move and put back what I got… I’m too old to move,” he laughed.

Though Hastings always knew of the area’s rich lithium deposits, and both Guignard and Hastings believe nearby properties were used for mining lithium in the 1950s, Hastings didn’t expect the demand for lithium to take off the way it has in recent years.

“Back then, lithium wasn’t like it is nowadays,” Hastings said.

A representative with Piedmont Lithium last visited Hastings early in October to reignite negotiations. Piedmont Lithium has yet to make a new offer, Hastings said.

Hastings’ 10-acre property sits just outside of the proposed mining site, but Hastings believes Piedmont Lithium could expand the site to Aderholdt Road depending on what the company finds through core drilling on nearby properties.

Though the thought of selling his land and abandoning his land, Hastings has tried to keep an open mind.

Hastings sells firewood but no longer farms the land, and Hastings’ son hasn’t shown any interest in taking up the family farm.

Deciding to give up his land could one day benefit Hastings’ son and 3-year-old granddaughter.

“I’m looking at what it’s going to do as far as helping them in the future,” he said.

“If they (Piedmont Lithium) comes on my property and they find what I think they might find, and I get royalties and everything from it, that’s going to help my son, his family and my granddaughter down the line.”

You can reach reporter Gavin Stewart at 704-869-1819 or on Twitter @GavinGazette.



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