Portugal wants to exploit its lithium reserves. But at what cost to the environment?

Portugal has the largest lithium reserves in Europe and the eighth largest worldwide, according to US geological survey. The Portuguese government is keen to remind the population of this, but experts warn against jumping to conclusions.

“Here we have this thing of saying that we have the fifth, sixth, eighth biggest reserve … that is exactly the same as nothing,” says Carlos Leal Gomes, professor at the University of Minho and lithium expert.

“You only know the place when you start the production of lithium.”

Project Covas do Barroso

Covas do Barroso is a small parish in northern Portugal where there are plans to create a new lithium mine. It is also home to some of the largest lithium reserves in the world. 

That’s why London-based company Savannah Resources wants to set up a mine in the small village. It would make Covas do Barroso the largest lithium mine in Western Europe. 

The project hopes to extract lithium for the production of spodumene concentrate, a hard rock that’s highly sought after for car batteries.

“We will produce around 25,000 tonnes of lithium hydroxide,” explains Dale Ferguson, the Interim CEO of Savannah Resources. “That’s enough material to make enough battery packs for about 500,000 new electric vehicles every year.”

For Professor Carlos Leal Gomes, the figures presented by Savannah are unproven.

“As a possible mine for the production of lithium concentrates, it is nothing extraordinary, not even in terms of the number of reserves, nor in the ores, especially in the ores that it has,” Gomes says.

“The ores are not the best there is. It will take a lot of work in technical and technological terms,” Gomes adds.

According to Savannah Resources, the company has spent millions of euros on tests and research on the area in Covas do Barroso. They say that over the past 30-40 years of development, they can simply and effectively remove the lithium from the rock. 

Major disputes among locals

What will certainly be very difficult is for the population of Covas do Barroso to accept the project. A village of just over 100 residents, mainly farmers, the massive lithium project is on everyone’s lips.

Many locals believe that the mine will bring many problems to their lives, poor water conditions and harmful air quality. 

The Portuguese Environment Agency issued on 31st of May a favourable environmental impact assessment, with some conditions Savannah has to comply with, but the population is not convinced.

“We don’t understand how to de-pollute. [Instead, it seems] we have to destroy forests, destroy the environment, destroy water courses, destroy the lives of the populations that live here,” says Nelson Gomes, president of United in Defence of Covas do Barroso Association.

The United in Defence of Covas do Barroso Association says that the battle is not over yet and promises to move to the courts to stop this mine.

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