The Maine Monitor | by Kate Cough | January 8, 2023
A couple hoping to excavate what may be the world’s richest lithium deposit on their property in Newry has taken their case to Superior Court in an effort to clarify what is considered a metal under Maine’s 2017 mining law, one of the strictest in the nation.
Lithium is a highly sought mineral used in batteries, cell phones, stove tops and other goods. The lode, which could be worth as much as $1.5 billion, generated international headlines when it was discovered in 2021.
But because of the state’s strict mining regulations, Mary and Gary Freeman have been unable to excavate the rocks that contain the lithium.
The Freemans, who operate under the LLC Freeman Resources, hope to reverse a July decision by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection classifying the lithium-bearing crystal, spodumene, as a metallic mineral. That would likely make it impossible for the couple to excavate the spodumene because Maine law bans mining for metals in open pits larger than three acres.
In late October, the Freemans filed two appeals, one with the Board of Environmental Protection, an independent group that presides over DEP decisions, and another in Kennebec County Superior Court.
BEP Board Chair Susan Lessard rejected the Freemans’ appeal in November, writing that the Board no longer had jurisdiction over the case, in part because authority had been transferred to the court. Lessard also wrote that the Board couldn’t process the appeal because the Freemans never applied for a mining permit, so there was no final licensing decision for the Board to review.
Mary Freeman, reached by email, declined to comment on the appeals.
In court filings, the couple said they didn’t apply for a mining permit because they are “not required to file an application under a regulatory program (they) do not believe applies to (their) proposed activity, requires two years of surveys before an application can be filed, and prohibits the very activity being proposed.”
The Freemans also asked that the court rule that the Board has jurisdiction over the appeal because, they say, the DEP’s denial of their request to remove the spodumene should be considered a final licensing action. A ruling in the couple’s favor would allow for the full Board to hear an appeal.
Last fall, the DEP granted the couple permission to expand the existing open-pit quarry operation on Plumbago Mountain up to 10 acres but denied the request to extract the crystals, saying the mineral would fall under the Metallic Mineral Mining Act. If the Freemans wanted to excavate the spodumene, said DEP officials, they would have to apply for permits under the Act, a costly, years-long process.
The Freemans, who split their time between Maine and Florida, have gem-hunted in western Maine for decades, and slowly bought up land in the area to expand on their prospecting work. Freeman Resources now owns more than 3,000 acres in Newry, according to tax records.
Western Maine has long been a popular place for “rockhounding,” where amateur collectors look for crystals, semi-precious gems, gold and other minerals. The area is rich in a type of coarse granite known as “pegmatite,” which can contain beryl, topaz and colored tourmaline, or in this case, spodumene.
The Freemans chose the land for its pegmatites — “The pieces are big,” Mary told The Monitor in 2021. It wasn’t untouched — the forest “was full of holes when we bought (it),” she said, and it was widely known among geologists that the property, known as Plumbago Mountain, was rich in spodumene.
“There is spodumene showing at the surface in many places,” Mary said, and “in former times when they mined feldspar here, they sometimes gave up and moved to other sites because they ran into too much spodumene. So spodumene is not a new discovery.” What was new was the size and richness of the crystals, which are among the world’s largest.
Yet even if the couple were to go through the process of applying for permits under the 2017 law, DEP officials acknowledged in a July letter, they would almost certainly face denial because of the Maine law. Underground mining for the spodumene in Newry would make little sense — many of the crystals are already exposed to the air, and open pit mining would be the only cost-effective way to get them out, several experts told The Maine Monitor last year.
At the heart of both appeals is the phrasing of the 2017 law, which refers to “metallic mineral.” Most minerals contain metallic elements, but the term has no commonly agreed upon definition in the scientific community. That has made it difficult for state regulators to figure out what qualifies as one without explicit guidance from lawmakers.
Spodumene, which has no history of regulation in Maine, was not discussed during talks on the law and should thus be considered a metallic mineral, said DEP officials, even though the mining act’s regulations “exceed what would be necessary to allow environmentally responsible extraction of spodumene, and effectively prohibit spodumene extraction.”
The Freemans argue that spodumene is a rock, not a metal, and should fall under the state’s quarrying regulations. The end product also matters: In an appeal filed in Superior Court, the couple say they plan only on excavating and selling the larger spodumene crystals, not processing them for the metal (lithium) they contain. If the Freemans sold the spodumene, another entity could then extract the lithium, a process that would likely happen outside the state, given Maine’s regulations.
That would make the proposed operation similar to quarrying for limestone, which also contains a metallic element (calcium) used for manufacturing cement. Limestone extraction is regulated under quarrying standards, not the mining act, partly because there’s a long history of quarrying for limestone in Maine, and partly because limestone extraction doesn’t pose the same environmental risks as mining for base metals like iron, copper, lead or zinc. Several experts told The Maine Monitor that spodumene extraction should be treated similarly because it poses similar risks.
“I don’t understand why metal mining would be applied to this type of mine at all,” said Dr. William “Skip” Simmons, a mineralogist and co-author on a paper describing the Newry findings. “It doesn’t make any sense to me.”
Opening a new quarry is much simpler and less expensive than applying for a permit to mine for metals, requiring only that the operator file a Notice of Intent to Comply with the state’s performance standards and pay an initial $250 fee (there are additional fees once the rocks are extracted).
A mining permit, by contrast, requires two years of baseline water quality testing and extensive environmental impact studies. Only one company, Wolfden Resources, has publicly indicated interest in testing the law since it was passed and has made little headway, encountering fierce local opposition and scrutiny from regulators.
At current market prices, the deposit in Newry, thought to contain 11 million tons of ore, is valued at roughly $1.5 billion and is estimated to have a higher percentage of lithium content by weight than any other known in the world. Measuring up to 36 feet in length, some of the lithium-bearing crystals are among the largest ever found, and news of their discovery, which The Maine Monitor broke, generated international attention.
Lithium is a key component of most large battery systems, including those found in electric vehicles. By 2030, the International Energy Agency estimates that supply from existing mines and projects under construction will produce only half the amount of lithium and cobalt necessary to meet international needs. Some minerals can be substituted for others — manganese has begun to appear in batteries as an alternative to cobalt — but lithium appears likely to remain an important component of batteries and other appliances, from air conditioners to electric stovetops.
The U.S. has extensive lithium reserves but produces less than 2% of the world’s annual supply, much of it from a single large-scale mine in Nevada. U.S. officials have pushed to increase the domestic supply of critical minerals, including lithium. But that’s proving complicated as advocates raise concerns over environmental destruction, tribal and water rights.
If it were to be excavated and processed, the technical grade lithium found in Newry would likely be used in stove tops, cell phones and computer screens, according to court records.
Kate Cough covers the environment for The Maine Monitor. Reach her with other story ideas by email: [email protected].