In Allier, the opening of a large lithium mine divides residents

In Allier, the opening of a large lithium mine divides residents

Faced with the opening of the largest lithium mine in Europe, planned for 2028, residents are torn between ecological damage and promises of economic development.

The landscape is bucolic on “the kaolin route”, a departmental road in Allier named in reference to the ore extracted from the subsoil of Combrailles – a low mountain region between Clermont-Ferrand and Montluçon – where porcelain is made and ceramics. At the edge of the road, Charolais cows graze the green grass of early spring and the tops of the beech trees of the Colettes forest, a 2,000 hectare massif classified as Natura 2000, blur the sunset. As you approach the village of Échassières, the road rises to follow the shape of La Bosse (721 m), the hill which overlooks this preserved landscape.

It is here, in this granite massif from which it already extracts kaolin, that the French company Imerys plans to open the largest lithium mine in Europe, by 2028. This is the “Emili project » (Exploitation of lithiniferous mica by Imerys). Since this announcement, the town of 400 inhabitants has become the epicenter of tensions around the return of the mine to France. Around the site, the atmosphere tenses, the gendarmerie is on alert and controls passers-by deemed too curious. “We have orders to avoid disturbances to public order, environmentalists are agitated around the future mine,” slips a gendarme. This evening, the town is hosting a meeting organized by the National Commission for Public Debate, the consultation will last three months throughout the department and residents are massing in front of the socio-cultural center. “We have been more than full since the beginning, the rooms are overflowing,” underlines Mathias Bourrissoux, the president of the debate.

Fear for water reserves

On the square, all sensibilities and generations intermingle. In the foreground, activists from France Nature Environnement and the Stop Mines 03 collective – created in response to the project – hold up banners “Lithium: neither here nor elsewhere”. Behind them, a pair of boots on their feet and a hood on their head, a patient little girl in her pink coat. Insensitive to the drizzle falling on the crowd, she carries her comfort blanket in her left hand and a yellow flag of the Confédération Paysanne union on her right shoulder. His mother came to oppose the project. “If I'm here it's for her, for future generations, La Bosse is our water tower! explains Laure, a member of the agricultural union and arborist in the neighboring town of Saint-Éloy-les-Mines (Puy-de-Dôme). Our concern relates to the astronomical quantities of water required for the mine and the pollution of groundwater that this causes. » The impacts of lithium extraction on blue gold reserves are sadly known throughout the world, particularly in Latin America, in the “lithium triangle” (Chile, Argentina, Bolivia). To deconstruct these images of dry streams, cracked soils and groundwater polluted with heavy metals, Imerys displays the ambition of a “responsible” mine. The company assures that “90% of the water needed for the project will be recycled” and that it will only need to pump “only” 600,000 m3 of water per year, in the Sioule, the neighboring river. But in this region with a strong mining past and where drought alerts have increased in recent years, this argument leaves doubtful. In the neighboring towns, the aftereffects of the old tungsten mines are still present. In 2018, a report from Geodéris, the post-mining expert group in France, revealed pollution by arsenic and lead in soil and water near the former Mazet mining site, five kilometers away, which continues for sixty years after its closure.

Hope of job creation

In the crowd, the fear that history will repeat itself is palpable. However, on the faces of this small group of retirees, enthusiasm is evident. Roger Melin, 80, a former underground miner, is delighted with the return of this industry to the region. “The mine is good for the life of the territory, it creates jobs and wealth. In addition, techniques have greatly improved over time, I am curious about how they will extract the ore,” explains this grandfather, passionate about industry, who hopes for the economic revival of his region.

The room opens its doors, more than 200 people rush in to attend the presentation by Christopher Heymann, the director of Beauvoir kaolins. Facing the overhead projector, with a laser in hand, he presents the project which should enable the equipping of 700,000 electric vehicles per year and create 600 direct jobs in the region. This prospect delights Frédéric Laporte, the mayor (LR) of Montluçon (Allier), whose town located 60 km from Échassières, is to host the conversion plant for the refining of the lithium necessary for batteries. In this pivotal territory of the French industrial revolution, in the 19th century, the closure of steel, metallurgy and chemical factories during the 20th century left the local economy drained and caused a demographic hemorrhage. “Our hope is that this short circuit mining and factory ecosystem will shine the spotlight on Montluçon and establish it as a pioneer city in the ecological transition,” explains the elected official.

Others believe that this industry belongs to another era. At the microphone, the collectives Stop Mines 03 and Préservons la forêt des Colettes plead to stop mining and move away from the individual car model. Ovation from one part of the room, outcry from the other. Christelle, a freelance nurse, grabs the microphone. “I work 25 km from here, so yes, sorry, I came by car,” she says, a bit provocatively. However, I also love nature, we all have a part of ecology in us but the evidence is there, this lithium, we need it. So rather than it coming from China, we might as well produce it in Allier. » Thunderous applause. The ping-pong of arguments continues like this for three hours. As we leave the room, night has fallen but the same question remains unanswered: will “the kaolin road” tomorrow be renamed “the lithium road”?

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