Extracting Atacama's lithium means pumping large amounts of water and churning up salty mud known as brine and that's having an irreversible impact on the local environment. (Atacama/Chile)
The oases that once interrupted the dusty slopes of the Atacama desert in northern Chile allowed humans and animals to survive for thousands of years in the world's driest climate. That was before the mining started.
"No one comes here anymore, because there's not enough grass for the animals," Plaza says. "But when I was a kid, there was so much water you could mistake this whole area for the sea."
Pursuit of the soft mineral is often seen as something that's good for the environment. Electric automakers such as-Tesla Inc. want to make it easier and cheaper for drivers to adopt clean, battery-powered replacements for dirty combustion engines.
Batteries are by-far the most expensive part of an electric vehicle, so mining more lithium to meet rising demand helps lower prices. Putting more electric cars on the road is one of the most powerful ways to mitigate the effects of climate change,-reducing-the 15.6% of global carbon emissions that come from transportation.
But extracting Atacama's lithium means pumping large amounts of water and churning up salty mud known as brine and that's having an irreversible impact on the local environment.
Here, in this remote part of the Andes, the hopeful mission of saving the planet through electric cars is destroying a fragile ecosystem and depleting stores of drinking water.
Lithium mining's crown jewel is a vast salt flat 10 times as big as New York's Central Park. To get the minerals out requires working at an elevation about 6,500 feet above sea level. The otherworldly desert landscape is dotted with shallow lagoons in which-flamingos nest amid an enclosure of volcanoes and mountains.
The stunning geography is akin to a gigantic bowl.
Mining companies have made a study of the water, too. The world's largest copper mine, BHP Group Ltd.Gs Escondida, pumps water from wells on the southern part of the salt flat; so,-too, does Antofagasta Plc.'s Zaldivar copper operation.
Copper miners use water at every step of the process to turn rocks into a 99.9% pure slab of mineral. Copper-rich rocks are crushed into a dust that's mixed with water to flow through giant pipes, and then water mixed with chemicals is used to separate the copper from the slurry.
Environmental impact studies conducted by the mining companies as part of the process to obtain government licenses consistently show no significant impact on water levels or wildlife.
The government water authority, Director General de Aguas, which has no data of its own and monitors the salt flat through company reports, sees no risk of irreversible damage-as long as legal requirements are fulfilled, said director Oscar Cristi.
From 2000 to 2015, the amount of water pumped out of the salt flat was 21% higher than the amount that filtered in, according to several reports by the Chilean governmentGs Committee of Non-Metallic Mining that analyzed data provided by mining companies.
Water levels in some wells on the southern part of the salt flat declined by about one meter over the last decade in total. In the central part of the salt flat, levels dropped between 20 centimeters and-1 meter per year, on average, over the 15-year period covered by the data.
The water allocated to homes in Peine often isn't enough, forcing the local government to shut off running water at night so tanks can refill. During the height of summer, water cuts can last up to four days.
Atacama's infrequent rains and the highest solar radiation in the world, 30% higher on average than in the Mojave desert result in fast evaporation and allow miners to produce high-quality lithium at a low cost. But that method of mining, dating from the 1950s, results in the loss of large amounts of water.
Companies and scientists are investigating ways to eliminate evaporation pools by capturing the lithium via chemical processes and then re-injecting water back into the salt flat, but these technologies haven't reached commercial implementation.
Local communities want to change that, and last month the council set up its first monitoring station in a lagoon on the salt flat. The installation will continuously monitor water levels, as opposed to the once-a-month measurements that mining companies do. There are plans to build 14 additional stations over the next year.
BHP has vowed to completely stop using fresh water in Chile by 2030-and has so far invested $4 billion in desalination plants. But the company is now requesting an extension of its water rights from 2020 to 2030, promising to cut the pumping rate to 640 liters per second.
Monitoring hasn't shown environmental changes different than those anticipated under existing--permits, a company official said in an email. AntofagastaGs Zaldivar copper mine is also seeking a new license to pump 213 liters per second through 2029; the company-wasn't-immediately available for-comment.
This has happened before: Dorador points to the Lagunillas salt flat, significantly impacted after more than a decade of pumping by BHPGs Cerro Colorado mine. Also drier-because of mining activity are the Punta Negra salt flat near BHPGs Escondida and the Michincha salt flat near the Collahuasi copper mine, which is owned by Anglo American and Glencore.
"Climate change is just making this problem bigger," Mondaca says. "Mining companies say the impact of what they're doing now will not be felt for another 20 years, but with climate change that could be 10 years, or it could be five. No one knows."
"It is a picture of how our lakes will look like in the future," Dorador says.-To her, pumping water out of this dying ecosystem means taking-away its last breath before scientists have had the chance to fully understand it.
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