The North American Lithium (NAL) mine is located 18 km by road east of the village of La Corne and 18 km by road west of the town of Barraute. It is also near the Mont-Vidéo ski center and at the foot of the Harricana Moraine, an underground hydrogeological formation sheltering good quality water.
Officially in production since December 20, 2012, the NAL mine has since suffered two bankruptcies and been purchased by new operators three times. After a long legal process, the multinational company Sayona Mining Limited (Sayona Mining) was awarded the mining rights in August 2021 .
This mining project was originally called Quebec Lithium yet its name was changed in June 2016 by the Chinese company Jien International Investment after a first bankruptcy. The difficulties of the promoters of the project are mainly due to the lack of financing, the difficulty in extracting the ore and a fall in the price of spodumene on the international markets. The last owners had accumulated debts of more than 200 million Canadian dollars and had failed in their obligation to deposit as collateral the 23 million dollars intended for the restoration of the mine site once the operations ended .
The NAL mine has a heavy environmental liability and is known to have escaped rigorous environmental assessments. When the project was presented in 2010, the proponents managed to avoid the Environmental Impact Assessment and Review Procedure (PEEIE) by presenting a daily ore extraction capacity just below the threshold required by the Office of Public Hearings on the Environment (BAPE) of the province of Quebec. The project also began operation before all the environmental assessments were completed .
In its early days, the project seemed to have passed under the radar of civil society, which only mobilized a little, although some environmental groups and independent scientific organizations had submitted critical reports, such as Action boréale and Société de l'Abitibi-Témiscamingue groundwater (SESAT).
The Quebec government has injected - and lost - several million dollars, notably through Investissement Québec (IQ).
Initially, the goal was to produce spodumene for export to China. In 2019, a lithium carbonate production complex was built, but production was short-lived . Its acquisition in 2021 by Sayona Mining Limited and its partner Piedmont Lithium has sent a warning signal as new environmental issues are likely to appear with the development strategy of the new buyers. This strategy consists in centralizing the processing on the NAL site of ores possibly coming from the Authier Lithium mining projects in Abitibi and that of Tansim in Témiscamingue, which to this day remain at the stage of mining exploration projects. However, such an increase in the volume of ore from two other mine sites would cause a considerable accumulation of mine waste at the NAL site. This would inevitably lead to major impacts on the environment, in particular on the fragile balance of the water system including groundwater.
Under warning of incurring penalties, the new buyers have made a commitment to the Quebec government to transform spodumene into lithium carbonate or lithium hydroxide by building a new plant within 6 to 10 years .
Moreover, the size of the surface mine has increased significantly over the years since the initial feasibility study. In 2011, the dimensions of the pit were 500mX300mX150m whereas in 2013 they rose to 1100mX570mX190m. The total tonnage also increased by 45.2% between 2010 and 2018. The environmental impacts of this considerable increase in the size of the project have not to date been the subject of a follow-up hydrogeological study.
The NAL mine is infamous for its numerous releases of toxic contaminants into the environment. An ‘access to information’ request revealed a compilation of 83 emergency reports at the NAL mine from March 13, 2013 to September 9, 2018. These reports documented several spills totaling more than 50 millions of liters of mine tailings, antifreeze, diesel, oil, process water, etc. . Of these incidents, two environmental accidents are of particular concern:
-On March 18, 2013, an accidental spill of 50 million liters of water and quartz occurred following a dam fracture at a tailings facility. This spill was considered category 2, meaning that the environmental consequences on humans, the environment, or habitats are significant and difficult to identify .
-On June 15, 2014, a second accidental spill occurred due to a broken pipe, which transported the mine tailings. 490,000 liters of sludge were dumped. In the days that follow, the solid part was recovered in the belt ditch and the liquid part was largely pumped into the tailings pond .
In both cases, as for the other 81 cases listed between March 13, 2013 and September 9, 2018, no comprehensive environmental study was subsequently carried out to monitor the quality of the groundwater. Indeed, hydrogeological studies of the NAL mine have simply never been completed since its launch in 2011 , while significant consequences on groundwater and hydrous environments are feared by several groups .
The Regroupement vigilance mines Abitibi-Témiscamingue monitors developments surrounding operations at the NAL mine. Finally, the Citizen Committee for the Protection of the Esker requested a hydrological study from the Government of Quebec on April 21, 2020, which was rejected by the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources on May 5, 2020.