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Safety concerns are in debate for coveted nickel needs in changing auto industry

(The Center Square) – Increased nickel demand for electric vehicle batteries hasn’t decreased environmental concerns over the potential dangers of mining the critical mineral.

Eleven percent of the world’s nickel is used for lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles. Extracting the metal, however, raises alarms over sulfide pollutants that are a byproduct of nickel mining. 

Mining companies and business groups say it can be done safely, while environmental groups declare such claims are “greenwashing” what they perceive as the inherent threats of nickel-sulfide mining to local water tables, air quality and soil.

The U.S. imports most of its nickel supply. 

“Nickel sulfide mining is an inherently risky and damaging process for the land, water and wildlife surrounding it,” environmental education and natural history professor Nick Fuhrman wrote. “As explained by the Tamarack Water Alliance, when sulfide ores are exposed to air and moisture, sulfuric acid is generated, releasing heavy metals into the land and water. These metals are toxic to fish and wildlife, placing the wild rice in extreme danger. Appallingly, almost every place where a nickel mine has been opened, contamination has occurred.”

In an email to The Center Square, Todd Malan asserted Talon’s construction of a nickel mine in Tamarack, Minn., isn’t a “We win/you lose” scenario. Malan leads Talon Metals Corp. in External Affairs and Climate Strategy. 

“Understanding what the United States has within its domestic mineral endowment, through the exploration activity that Talon hopes to undertake in the U.P., will help the U.S. address its current dependency for critical minerals from foreign countries like Indonesia, China and Russia,” Malan wrote, referring to the Upper Peninsula.

“Talon Metals believes that we can produce critical minerals domestically while protecting the environment and cultural resources and creating good-paying union jobs,” Malan continued.  “It doesn’t have to be a choice between one objective or another.”

Thirty-seven percent of the nickel used in manufacturing is mined in Indonesia, according to a Canadian Government website. The Philippines and Russia are second and third, respectively, at 13.7% and 9.3%. The U.S. ranks ninth at 0.7%.

Those rankings could shift significantly if U.S. Geological Survey estimates become reality. According to the government agency and Michigan Geological Survey, U.S. nickel deposits could rival third-place Russia and sixth-place Canada.

The Eagle Mine in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is currently the only nickel mine in the U.S. Talon Metals Inc. is in the process of developing a second nickel mine in Tamarack, Minn. The underground Eagle Mine initially was met with widespread environmental protests before it opened fully for operation in 2014. However, in the years since the mine has come to be regarded as setting the benchmark for all future U.S. mines.

“Thus far, Eagle Mine has operated in compliance with the regulations and requirements of permits issued by EGLE under the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act,” Melanie Humphrey, senior geologist with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy’s Upper Peninsula Geological Repository, told The Center Square in an email. “From my perspective as an environmental regulator, Eagle Mine has been responsive and proactive to environmental issues and concerns.”

Malan said the permitting of the Eagle Mine included compliance with Michigan’s stringent environmental regulations as well as U.S. standards.

“The United States, and states like Michigan, have some of the highest standards globally for protection of environment and cultural resources, labor, human rights and participation of indigenous people,” Malan told The Center Square. “When it comes to the production of critical minerals like nickel, these high standards ensure that we can responsibly extract these minerals domestically.”

Malan continued, “Ultimately, producing these minerals in a state like Michigan, with high standards and proximate to battery manufacturing and EV production is a matter of competitive advantage. This advantage is in comparison to minerals sourced from countries like Indonesia, with low standards of environmental protection, significant biodiversity impacts, poor labor protections and a mining and mineral sector dominated by Chinese companies.”

Tom Bergman is the community development director in Ironwood, Mich. In an email to The Center Square, he said the Upper Peninsula’s wilderness is one of its greatest assets.

“I think we can do both: Encourage economic growth in the U.P. and maintain the beauty and character of the land and our communities,” Bergman said. “I often joke that if it wasn’t for mosquitos and black flies we would be overrun with people. I definitely understand the concern of what the impact would be of a bigger mining presence. A combination of the impact of mineral extraction and an increased population would change the character of the U.P.,” he added.

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