Lithium refiners suspend operations after pollution scare

Some lithium refiners in Yichun, Jiangxi province, have suspended operations following an official investigation into pollution of the local river, reported Yicai.com

Lithium is a vital element in electric vehicle batteries and Yichun city is known as the “lithium capital of Asia”. In 2021, the city produced 81,000 tons of lithium carbonate, more than a quarter of China’s total. 

Extracting lithium from low-grade ore generates a lot of waste including tailings and lithium feldspar powder, all of which needs treating.

Yichun’s Environment Protection Bureau (EPB) suspects the pollution of the Jin River is related to lithium production in its jurisdiction. The Jin is the primary water source for residents in seven cities and townships and has been “visibly abnormal both in colour and smell”. The EPB has ordered Yongxing Materials, Yichun’s leading lithium refiner, to suspend production until the investigation is over. Two other companies have also halted operations but did not connect their decision to the investigation, according to The Paper

In August this year, Jiangxi’s Environmental Inspection Team pointed out that some outstanding environmental problems in Yichun need to be resolved urgently, including the management of tailings and slag. In November, the local EPB vowed to carry out a comprehensive investigation of the lithium industry chain, in a bid to promote “high-quality development of the industry”.

The environmental investigations are currently underway. “Not only a few enterprises along the river, but hundreds of them will be investigated”, a source from the inspection team told the media. But Yicai also pointed out that the scope of the investigation appeared to be limited to lithium refining. The operations of major lithium battery manufacturers in Yichun seem unaffected by the investigation. 

Read China Dialogue’s article on the green paradox over EVs and lithium mining.