Valuable lessons and warnings can be obtained by a study of the Hell´s Kitchen Lithium and Power Project for which the green light has just been given to the U.S. corporation Controlled Thermal Resources (CTR). This is located on the banks of the Salton Sea which is a shallow, saline lake in the arid Imperial County of Southern California and sits above a volcanic system consisting of the San Andreas and San Jacinto Faults

Exploration by drilling to depths of between one and three kilometres and the use of sonar has revealed the existence of a geothermal brine reservoir which contains, at temperatures ranging from 250 to 350 ºC, Lithium (200 parts per million), Rubidium (110 ppm.) Bromine (90 ppm.) and cesium (20 ppm.) Preliminary assessments indicate that the potential production of Lithium could amount to 3.5 million tonnes which would be sufficient to manufacture batteries for more than 375 million of the new e-vehicles.

The site already boasts a plant dating from the 1980s for geothermal electricity generation. This is now to be enlarged to provide sufficient power to pump the brine to a treatment station where a new hybrid process known as direct extraction will use ion-exchange technology instead of pollution-encouraging evaporation ponds. It is anticipated that this new method of separation will use a maximum of 15 metric tonnes of freshwater to produce one ton of Lithium instead of the 70 mt. required by conventional processes. Furthermore, CTR plan to obtain this freshwater by using condensed steam from the power plant which will be recycled repeatedly until its eventual outfall into the Salton Sea.

The third stage of the project plans a contiguous factory to manufacture batteries. CTR will not be involved directly in this but is under a political obligation to ensure that the contract will go to a U.S manufacturer and not to the Chinese group Ganfeng which until recently was the majority shareholder in Lithium America, the owner of the comparable Thacker Pass Lithium Project in Nevada.

Understandably, government is most enthusiastic about the prospect of being a world leader in the production of “green Lithium” and competitors in the industry are raring to go with similar schemes in the south-west of the U.S.A. However, opposition is growing among the local farming community on the basis that (1) such enormous depletion of aquifers and brine lakes may trigger a return of severe earthquakes and (2) it will only exacerbate the existential threat of a drying out of the Sea and an increase in its salinity due to the lack of a finely balanced supply of fresh water.

The basin of which the Salton Sea forms part has seen cyclic weather patterns during two millennia whereby rivers have changed course and rainfall has been more plentiful so that there has been an alternation between desert and lake. The present expanse of water measures 55 km from north to south with a maximum width of 25 km. and was created in 1905 by a freak storm which caused the mighty Colorado River to burst through the gates and embankments of several small irrigation canals. The flooding was allowed to continue for two years until the basin was almost full and resulted in an astonishing increase in flora and fauna.

For thirty years from around 1940, tourism mushroomed with several resorts being quickly built to accommodate Californians seeking participation in speedboat racing (Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin competed), aquatic sports and fishing. However, the drainage basin is endorheic i.e. it allows water to flow in but escape is only by evaporation. The rapid growth in human activity resulted in all manner of detritus finding its way into the depths while pesticides, fertilisers and industrial waste from agriculture were carried there by several water courses. Additionally, the natural seepage of minerals by passage through rock formations and a prolonged drought caused a drop in the water level and consequent exposure of the playa. The result was an increase in salinity and toxic pollution which killed 97% of fish stocks and many of the diverse species of birds which fed upon them while using the wetlands as in important migratory stopover. The water began to stink and high Sonora desert winds caused swirling dust storms to spread toxic waste particles bringing a variety of pulmonary diseases to the mainly Latino local population, farm animals and wildlife.

Tourism shrank and, although the wilderness of the surrounding landscape became a set-piece for Hollywood sci-fi and western movies, the region lost all commercial activity. Only a small band of farmers was able to profit from the traditional policy of prior-appropriation water rights (First in; last out) which subsidised the extraction of water from the Colorado river to grow salad crops such as lettuce and alfalfa, a high protein cattle food, which, rather incongruously, was exported to China and Japan. The run-off from this helped to maintain the depth of water but, at the beginning of this century, water began to be transferred to drought stricken San Diego county causing a further reduction in the surface area of the Sea.

A fanciful scheme to pump seawater from the Pacific to dilute salinity was far too costly. Instead, it was proposed to build several huge desalination plants at the coast of the Sea of Cortez and to convey water by canal over 200 km. of flat terrain but this was dismissed by the Mexican authorities because of potential damage to the environment by the dumping of huge quantities of brine into sensitive marine ecosystems and the damage to pristine beaches which would become industrial zones. So, the current plan is to build desalination plants and new geothermal power stations at the Sea itself at an estimated cost of USD60 billion which is one half of the amount proposed for the Cortez scheme. This will include the planting of what may remain of the exposed playa, the restoration of the wetlands and the improvement of the reserve of the Native American Cahuilla people.

Such works, if successful, could see the return of tourism but might have a detrimental effect if Tesla were to reconsider its plan of twelve years back to construct a “Giga-Factory” with massive requirements for both energy and water.

In Portugal, the open-cast mining of Lithium carbonate will bring air pollution over vast areas of northern and central provinces. It remains unknown as to what degree the ingestion of toxic dust will cause chronic sickness and no positive plan for the prevention or reduction of this pollution exists. The same applies, perhaps to a lesser degree, to the mining of copper, lead and other minerals in the Iberian Pyrite Belt. To all aspects of mining there is the problem of finding sufficient water for cleaning and refining minerals in districts which are trying to cope with and prepare for the prolongation of severe drought. Add to this that groundwater as a source via artesian wells is under threat from rupture though mining and seepage of pesticides from intensive agriculture produces a perspective which is worrying for the future of the national wellbeing. The suggested solution of building large desalination plants (especially along the coast of The Algarve) is fraught with the same difficulties found at Salton Sea.

Unfortunately, quality of life issues such as the management of national resources almost always come down to resolution by economic and political clarity of policy and we can only hope that this will be forthcoming from the new government about to be elected.