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What Lies Beneath Bolivia's Salt Flats

by Katie Leo 

Tags: Environment, Energy, lithium, battery-powered cars, Bolivia, In These Times,

inthesetimesThe future of lithium refining looks bright, and Bolivian President Evo Morales wants a piece of it. Roughly half the world’s lithium lies beneath the salt flats in Uyuni, Bolivia, reports April Howard for In These Times (article not available online). This resource could greatly reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, because lithium is a key component of battery-powered cars. However, the prospect of creating a large-scale lithium extraction and refining industry in Bolivia carries with it numerous potential problems, including dangers to the environment.

For one thing, Uyuni's salt flats contain a high concentration of magnesium as well as lithium, making it more difficult to extract the lithium. And, no one knows exactly what to do with the magnesium after the refining process. According to Marcelo Castro, who is overseeing construction of Uyuni’s lithium plant, the refinery will be a “closed circuit” system in which “We’ll throw materials that we don’t use back into the brine with a few less elements.”

This prospect alarms Elizabeth Lopez Canelas of the Bolivian Environmental Defense League (FOBOMADE), who points out that the resulting heightened salinity could harm peasants who use the water for irrigation. Furthermore, brine extraction facilities could damage the salt flat and Rio Grande delta beyond repair, affecting the wild flamingos who breed there.

Lopez Canelas warns that “There’s no information, no water use studies. So how can they begin to project what the long-term effects might be?”

Source: In These Times