A new mine could position Quebec as a lithium leader, but its rocky past worries locals

In a vast open-pit pit 550 kilometers northwest of Montreal, 100-ton trucks traverse the steep roads, preparing for the mine to open.

The chalk-white veins of those rocks contain metals, including one of the world’s most sought-after minerals: lithium, a key component of electric car batteries.

When production resumes at the La Corne, Que., lithium mine early next year, it will be one of the few operating lithium concentrate mines in North America and will position Quebec as Canada’s lithium leader.

Sayona Quebec, which bought the mine in 2021, has already hired about 80 full-time workers, and the mayor of the neighboring municipality, Amos, says there will certainly be secondary economic benefits for the residents.

“As a Quebecer, I am proud,” said Guy Laliberté, CEO of Sayona Quebec. “Knowing that this lithium (will have been) produced with green energy, hydroelectric power… under some very strict and strict environmental regulations.”

But others are more skeptical. In the past 10 years, the lithium mine has changed hands four times, been responsible for major and damaging spills, and filed for creditor protection twice, despite a $110 million investment from the provincial government.

Sayona’s plant is located in the Abitibi-Témiscamingue region of Quebec, approximately 550 kilometers northwest of Montreal. (Sayon Quebec)

Meanwhile, environmental groups and members of the Long Point First Nation have spoken out about Sayona’s other proposed lithium projects in the region, saying the projects could threaten water, as well as the Anishinabeg way of life.

That’s why some experts say that while lithium mining is important, it shouldn’t be considered a magic bullet for climate change just because it powers the electric vehicle industry.

“There is a lot of harm associated with mining, both to communities and ecosystems,” said Teresa Kramarz, a mining expert at the University of Toronto.

A warm resource next to Canada’s most pristine water

Canada does not currently produce lithium, but has about 2.5% of the world’s lithium known lithium deposits.

That’s a sweet spot on the radar compared to lithium-powered countries like Bolivia, Australia, Chile and Argentina, while China controls most of the world’s computing capacity. However, Canadian lawmakers have signaled that they are eager to extract what they can.

As consumers move away from gas-powered cars, demand for lithium has outstripped supply. Expert analysis says we need to add at least another 300 mines globally to meet current demand.

“We have lithium in Quebec, and it’s important to take advantage of it,” Quebec Premier François Legault told reporters in September.

Round, yellow machines are inside a large factory.
Inside the mill at the La Corne lithium mine, machines grind the ore into a more concentrated form of lithium. (sayona)

But Olivier Pitre, director of SÉSAT, a group that monitors groundwater in Quebec’s Abitibi-Témiscamingue region, says mining in the region could be having an effect on some of the purest waters in North America.

Abitibi-Témiscamingue is home to an 8,000-year-old ridge of layered sand and gravel that naturally filters rain and snow. The result is water so pristine that the Eska water company is based in the region.

Pitre says that by digging a large hole — the mine, or multiple mines — groundwater will be drawn to the bottom of the hole by gravity. This risks depressurizing the local aquifer, causing streams, lakes and rivers to dry up.

There has been growing skepticism in the community about the mine’s operations, Pitre said.

“There’s this general feeling that there’s something very wrong, probably a couple of things very wrong with this mine,” he said.

A man in a tuque and striped scarf stands in front of a body of water
Olivier Pitre, director of a groundwater protection group in Quebec’s Abitibi-Témiscamingue region, said mining in the area threatens a unique glacial formation that naturally seeps the region’s water. (Kate McKenna/CBC)

Past problems, future projects

When the La Corne site first passed the feasibility study for lithium production in 2011, the local mayor said it was like “winning the lottery”. But since then, the record has been rocky at best.

In 2014, the site was touted as being “on track to become the fourth largest producer of lithium in the world,” according to the head of then-owner, Canada Lithium. The mine closed just over a year later, filing for bankruptcy.

Although the mine operated under the previous ownership, the media reported at least two major environmental contaminants. In the first, a cistern rupture caused the leakage of millions of liters of wastewater. In a different incident, a pipe containing tailings burst, leaking nearly 500,000 liters of mining waste.

In 2016, a Chinese investment company bought the mine. Two years later, Chinese battery giant CATL bought it, but filed for creditor protection two years later.

Laliberté says he is aware of past problems, but says the mine has passed all Quebec environmental regulations and that they carry out regular tests to monitor the site.

He also has a plan to increase the mine’s financial viability. In addition to benefiting from increased lithium demand, he says they’re investing substantial money—about $100 million—in equipment refurbishments.

It also has plans to raise revenue by establishing a cluster of lithium mines in the region. Sayona’s other two mining projects, called Authier and Tansim, are in the early stages of development, but when they become working mines, their ore will be transported tens of kilometers to La Corne to be concentrated.

A bespectacled man in a pinstripe suit and flowered shirt looks straight at the camera.  Portraits of former mayors of Amos, Que.  are visible behind him.
Sébastien D’Astous, mayor of Amos, Que., says the mine will bring jobs and wealth to the region, but said he would like to see the region be able to process lithium in addition to mining the ore. (Kate McKenna/CBC)

Sébastien D’Astous, the mayor of Amos, a town of 13,000 near La Corne, says he wants to see lithium mined in Quebec also be processed in Quebec. If all goes according to Laliberté’s plan, by 2025 the La Corne plant could be the first in North America to reach that critical step.

“We are the best place in the world to work with this type of mineral,” D’Astous said. “The goal is to create a lithium cluster here and make sure the economy is built on this cluster.”

No such refinery exists in Canada. For now, the lithium extracted from La Corne will be shipped overseas to be processed into lithium carbonate or hydroxide, and then can be sold to producers.

‘Exploitation and development in our backyard’

Neither Tansim nor Authier will be opening anytime soon: Authier is due to undergo environmental hearings next summer, and Tansim is still in an exploratory stage.

Former Anishinabeg chief Steeve Mathias said his community, Long Point First Nation, was particularly concerned about the proposed Tansim project. It is close to Lac Simard, which according to Mathias is the heart of the community and the site of many traditional practices, including hunting, fishing, medicinal plant gathering and healing ceremonies.

“People are not ready to support that kind of exploitation and development in our backyard,” he said.

A man looks straight at the camera.  The sky is dark.  The man is wearing a black coat and gray shirt.
Former Anishinabeg chief Steeve Mathias says a Sayona project near his home community of Winneway threatens traditional activities such as hunting and fishing. (Kate McKenna/CBC)

Long Point First Nation asked for funding from the province to do your own study of the potential environmental impacts of Sayona’s activities. So far, Mathias says he has received no response.

Several kilometers outside of Val-d’Or – a town in the Abitibi-Témiscamingue region so rich in minerals, the name actually translates to “the golden valley” – Rodrigue Turgeon points to an empty field, but for a some water and grey-blue mud.

That mud – mining residue from an old gold mine – looks unnatural even in the burnished decay of November.

Turgeon, spokesperson for MiningWatch Canada, urges Canadians to see the tailings and understand that more lithium means more mines. He wants Canadians to ask themselves whether it is a good idea to replace the extraction of one resource – gasoline – with another resource – lithium.

A standing man with brown hair and a beard wears a sweater with a colorful pattern near his neck.  He stands in front of my tailings, the waste left over from a gold mine in Val D'Or.  There are shallow pools of water and some brown plants growing from the waste.
MiningWatch Canada co-spokesperson Rodrigue Turgeon addresses tailings — the tailings left over from a gold mine — and says consumers should be aware that mines are very damaging to local ecosystems. (Kate McKenna/CBC)

“It is important to recognize the extent of the areas that we have polluted for centuries in Quebec’s history to encourage this polluting industry that only pursues its own profit,” he said.

Turgeon said citizens should resist the notion that lithium will save the environment and instead change their consumption habits.

“It’s a shift from one type of pollution to another. We really need to start doing everything in our power to reduce our rate of consumption,” he said.

Teresa Kramarz, the University of Toronto’s mining expert, says that beyond mining, there needs to be serious conversations in Canada and abroad about more sustainable forms of transportation, including an increase in public transportation.

“Everyone who buys electric cars and everyone who has a Tesla in their driveway, I don’t think it’s sustainable…it’s neither fair nor sustainable.

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