Its proximity to the Salton Sea has shaped the fate of the Imperial Valley in countless ways. The rumor these days is that lithium buried deep under water is the key to a prosperous future, the elixir that will transform a region plagued by high unemployment and endemic respiratory disease.
“We’re almost like heaven when it comes to lithium mining,” Imperial County Supervisor Jesus Eduardo Escobar told a Scripps correspondent. “You’re looking at between $500 billion and $1 trillion [dollars]regarding the net worth of this lithium that we have here in imperial county.
“We are starting by changing the economic base of Imperial Valley and making it a global beacon for lithium production, battery storage and the future of California’s economy,” said the Lithium Valley Commissioner. , Thomas Soto, at a recent meeting.
Unsurprisingly, many locals fear that converting their community to the so-called Lithium Valley is the solution to their problems.
“Who in the Salton Sea Basin will be able to live in this bowl of toxic dust that will consume everything in the area?” Salton Sea resident Art Gertz asked during a meeting of the Lithium Valley Commission last month. “Lithium is great, we hope it does wonderful things. We hear a lot of wonderful things, but until we take care of the biggest problem in concert, how are we going to reap the long-term benefits? ?”
Authorized by state law AB 1657, the 14-member Lithium Valley Commission has been meeting virtually for just over a year, gathering and analyzing information about lithium mining and its impact on the region. . The area near the Salton Sea has a rich supply, needed for electric vehicles and mobile phones. The United States currently depends on other countries for lithium; mining it in California could change that.
In a report due Oct. 1, the commission is expected to assess everything from the potential benefits of mining lithium using existing geothermal facilities on the Salton Sea to the environmental safety of mining methods.
In particular, the commission is do not responsible for collecting public comments for their project.
The bill establishing the commission only states that members “may seek public comment to make recommendations on matters.” Nonetheless, some commission members, including community activists and public health experts, made it clear that public engagement and input should be a crucial part of their assessment, given the potential impact on surrounding communities.
Yet such engagement has been so minimal that many locals don’t even know their valley is home to an item in high demand as a component of lithium-ion batteries, an alternative to fossil fuels, let alone that a commission exists to help. create a Lithium Valley.
“A mine? Oh, another lakeside project? They are still studying there,” said Romero Gonzales, as he left El Sol Market in Brawley.
“I think I read something about it a few weeks ago, but I couldn’t give you any specifics. I don’t know when or where,” said Lori Jones, who added that she can only afford to buy the Imperial Valley Press newspaper from a newsstand twice a week.
“No, I didn’t know they were going to set a mine,” Rosa Maria Sevilla said as she waited for the bus near Brawley Town Hall last week. She squinted at a small diagram on a phone illustrating the process of extracting lithium from brine. “Is everything going to be done by machine or will there be jobs?”
For many in Brawley, the third-largest city in the Imperial Valley with a population of around 26,000, the key question is whether the economically depressed region will benefit financially. Estimates show the potential to create up to 800 new jobs by 2028, according to information gathered by the Lithium Valley Commission.
The poverty rate in Imperial County is the third highest in the state, according to 2021 figures released by the U.S. Census Bureau. The unemployment rate in Imperial County was 14% in February, well below the May 2020 high of 28%, according to the state’s Employment Development Department. However, this rate does not compare favorably to the February unemployment rate of 5.4% for California and 3.8% for the United States.
And those in agriculture or government jobs don’t earn much, with a per capita income of around $18,000, according to 2021 census figures.
Investments in the region are needed.
This article originally appeared on Capital & Main.