Will a ‘Lithium Rush’ From California’s Salton Sea Fund Its Environmental Remediation?

There's a polluted 343-square-mile lake known as "the Salton Sea," about 150 miles southeast of Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Times calls it California's "largest and most troubled lake," after a recent visit with biogeochemist Timothy Lyons. But is it about to experience a change of fortune? "The big problem at the Salton Sea is intermingled with that organic brown layer on top — and to be honest, it's scary," said Lyons, 63. "It's loaded with pesticides and heavy metals — molybdenum, cadmium and selenium — that linger in greatest concentrations in deeper water... That should worry people, because the Salton Sea is shrinking and exposing more and more of this stuff to scouring winds that carry them far and wide," he added. "Our goals include mapping where these hazardous materials are located, and determining where they came from and what may become of them if trends continue." For Lyons' research team, filling blanks in existing data is an obsession, and it could have significant implications at a time when the air practically crackles with a volatile mix of environmental danger and economic opportunities promised by ongoing efforts to tap immense reserves of lithium, a key ingredient of rechargeable batteries.... Clouds of salty, alkaline toxic dust containing heavy metals, agricultural chemicals and powdery-fine particulates linked to asthma, respiratory diseases and cancer are rolling off newly exposed playa, threatening the health of thousands of nearby residents. Delays and costs are mounting for many projects that were designed to be showcases of restoration and dust mitigation. Scientists say it's because the projects were developed without consideration for heat waves, severe droughts and water cutbacks due to climate change, or for the constantly evolving underlying geology at the hyper-saline landlocked lake at the southern end of the San Andreas Fault, where shifting tectonic plates bring molten material and hot geothermal brine closer to Earth's surface. Now, large corporations investing in proposals to suck lithium out of the brine produced by local geothermal operations have revived hopes of jobs and revenue from land leases, with lithium recovery projects potentially supporting internships, education programs and environmental restoration projects for years to come. The Times got an interesting quote from Frank Ruiz, a program director at the nonprofit environmental group Audubon California — a man who is also a member of the Lithium Valley Commission (lawmakers and community leaders trying to help guide decisions). "If done correctly, it will elevate the region by creating jobs, benefit the state and the nation by making geothermal energy more affordable, and lay the groundwork for negotiations aimed at ensuring that some of the royalties from lithium production and related land leases are used to support dust reduction and environmental restoration projects." Ruiz also says that one way or another, "The lithium rush at the Salton Sea cannot be stopped."

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