Why a Maine couple is fighting to mine a $1.5 billion lithium deposit

Lithium is highly prized for its use in batteries. The massive deposit in Newry was initially discovered in 2021.

Broken-down spodumene minerals, which contain lithium, before processing at a mine outside La Corne, Quebec. Brendan George Ko/The New York Times

Near the Sunday River Ski resort, in the small Western Maine town of Newry, lies one of the world’s largest deposits of lithium. The massive deposit of lithium, valued for its use in batteries, cell phones, stove tops, and more, could be worth as much as $1.5 billion. 

But the couple that owns the land is fighting through the court system just to be able to excavate the precious material. 

The deposit, which contains an estimated 11 million tons of ore, was initially discovered in 2021, The Maine Monitor reported. It has some of the largest lithium-bearing crystals ever found, with some measuring up to 36 feet in length. 


Gary and Mary Freeman, who operate Freeman Resources, are entrenched in a complex effort to navigate Maine’s strict mining regulations and get permission to extract the lithium-bearing crystals, known as spodumene. At the center of the issue is a debate about what actually classifies as a metal.

Lithium itself is a metal, the lightest and least dense in the world. In July, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection classified the spodumene crystals as metallic minerals, according to the Monitor. Maine laws do not allow for the excavation of metals in open pits larger than three acres, thus making it impossible for the Freemans to excavate the crystals. 

So, in October, the couple filed an appeal with the Maine Board of Environmental Protection, which presides over decisions made by the DEP, according to the Monitor. The DEP Board Chair rejected the appeal, writing that the Board no longer had jurisdiction over the case, and that authority had been transferred to the Kennebec County Superior Court.   

The Freemans asked the court to rule that the Board does, in fact, have jurisdiction over the appeal, the Monitor reported. If the court rules in their favor, the full Board would have to hear the couple’s appeal. 


The DEP did grant the Freemans permission to expand their existing open-pit quarry operation up to 10 acres, but denied their request to extract the lithium-containing crystals. To excavate these, DEP officials said that the couple would have to apply for permits under Maine’s Metallic Mineral Mining Act. This process would be expensive and likely take years, the Monitor reported. 

The only cost-effective way to extract the crystals would be to expand the open pit wider than three acres, rather than set up an underground mining operation. 

“I don’t know of any underground and manganese or lithium mines in the world,” Geologist John Slack told the Monitor in 2021. “Because those metals have a relatively low cost, in terms of their concentration per ton or per ounce, you need to excavate large volumes of rock cheaply in order to economically and profitably produce the metal you’re interested in.”

Lithium is becoming more desirable than ever due to the fact that the batteries used in electric cars rely on the metal. Although the US has some of the largest lithium reserves in the world, only one large-scale lithium mine operates in the states: Silver Peak in Nevada, according to The New York Times. It produces about 5,000 tons of lithium a year, equivalent to less than 2 percent of the world’s annual supply.


But environmental, tribal, and water quality advocates have all voiced concerns about the dangers of increased lithium production.


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