Environment

Rio Tinto launches controversial Serbian lithium investment before environmental study

Rio Tinto controversial Serbian lithium environmental

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July 28, 2021

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Published:

July 28, 2021

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Representatives of Rio Tinto’s subsidiary in Serbia said it would continue to buy land and work on permits for a lithium mine after the company earmarked USD 2.4 billion for its construction, even though the feasibility and environmental impact studies aren’t complete.

Motivated by surging demand for lithium ion batteries, Rio Tinto revealed it intends to make Serbia one of the world’s biggest producers of the alkali metal. The Anglo-Australian mining giant said it would spend an additional USD 2.4 billion to enable underground extraction and build a processing unit for the unique jadarite mineral in Loznica in the country’s west.

Production is expected to begin in five years and by 2029 annual output is seen reaching 58,000 tons of lithium carbonate, which Rio Tinto said would place it in the top ten on a global scale. At the project’s latest presentation in Serbian capital Belgrade, the company’s representatives said the target of 160,000 tons of boric acid per year would make the Balkan country the third in the world in the borates sector, trailing only the United States and Turkey.

The Loznica unit is also projected to deliver 255,000 tons of sodium sulphate per annum when it reaches full capacity.

Most developed underground lithium mining project in Southeastern Europe

Rio Tinto added it aims to produce 2.3 million tonnes of lithium carbonate over the Jadar mine’s expected 40-year lifespan. The investment decision is its biggest move yet into minerals for batteries for electric vehicles and consumer electronics.

Jadarite was discovered in Serbia in 2001 and the mining behemoth has been analyzing the possibilities for its exploitation ever since. It is, for now, the only developed project in the lithium belt stretching through the Balkans. The country’s government approved a number of other research permits.

Locals and environmentalists stepped up resistance in the past few years due to health hazards, toxic leaks from exploratory drills and procedural breaches. They accused the company of withholding information. The planned mine would displace several villages.

Capex without permits

Mining companies usually obtain all necessary licenses before entering the construction phase, but Rio Tinto committed the USD 2.4 billion before finishing the feasibility study and environmental impact assessment study. Critics are speculating it made an unofficial deal with the authorities behind closed doors.

A recent media report indicated covert talks were underway about expanding the capacity. President of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić earlier said the company will have invested a total of USD 450 million by the end of 2021.

Borates can be used in solar panels and wind turbines

General Manager of Rio Sava Exploration Vesna Prodanović (pictured middle) said Rio Tinto’s local subsidiary would continue to work on obtaining permits and to buy land as it is necessary according to Serbian law to be able to begin the construction of the mine. She stressed lithium’s role in the energy transition and green energy projects. In addition, borates can be used in solar panels and wind turbines.

According to Prodanović, Loznica can provide rare high-grade lithium carbonate that can be directly used for the production of lithium ion battery storage systems. Rio Tinto claimed the project would make it the largest source of lithium supply in Europe for at least the next 15 years. It said it would employ 2,100 people during construction and 1,000 workers for regular operations.

Rio Tinto can produce enough lithium in Serbia for one million electric vehicles per year

The mining company’s Chief Executive Jakob Stausholm said Jadar project could supply enough lithium to power over one million electric vehicles per year and that expenses for both boron and lithium would be in the lowest quartile.

“The modern underground mine” placed 700 meters below the surface will feature only electric vehicles, Prodanović pointed out. She asked for patience for a few more months before the environmental impact assessment is published for public debate, saying all technical solutions will be made known then. The company stuck to its estimate that the construction would start next year.

Prodanović: Most of the land on the potential mining site is in the third and fourth categories, which means it isn’t used or is covered by forest

The site spans 400 hectares. Denying activists’ claims that the mining project would devastate agricultural activities in the area, Rio Sava’s head said most of the land is in the third and fourth categories, which means it isn’t used or is covered by forest. The firm called on landowners to sell directly and use the benefits from its program.

Rio Tinto’s subsidiary in Serbia said at the event that it gave offers for 64% of the land and 77% of the structures in the planned mining area and claimed 98% of owners accepted them. The rest of the units have unsolved ownership issues or the owners are unknown, according to the firm. In its view, government expropriation will be the option for the people that won’t sell their properties. Rio Sava underscored that it aims to drive the share of the number of such lots to under 10%.

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