Millions of tons of lithium deposits “could be lost forever” if Spanish company starts on Tâmega dam project

Scientists are working against the clock to get the government to suspend multi-million Spanish hydroelectric dam projects on Portugal’s Tâmega river.

The reason is that areas to be flooded potentially hold millions of tons of lithium deposits – an “extremely important mineral for Portugal and the rest of Europe”, used in the telecommunications industry and the production of batteries for electric vehicles.

Porto scientist Alexander Lima has already presented a complaint to Portuguese environment agency APA – in charge of the environmental impact study on the project – though Público suggests that he’s not holding out much hope.

Lost in the small print after Lima’s “fears” over losing access to some of the country’s richest concentrations of lithium is the possibility that flooding 983 hectares in the area known as Covas do Barroso will end up posing a danger to public health.

The mineral deposits could leak into underground aquifers – which supply populations with water – so compromising quality.

The issue, for now, is only making it onto the nation’s ‘inside pages’ – bearing in mind the dams are not being built with human consumption in mind.

Certainly, environmental NGO Quercus has not referred to Lima’s health warning, saying instead that as far as it is concerned more research should go into the Covas do Barroso seams – and the government should not “enter into the craze of mineral exploration” like the last (PSD-led) administration.

“Experience shows us that mineral exploration leaves environmental and ecological damages that are paid by taxpayers”, Quercus’ vice-president Nuno Sequeira told CM – a clear allusion to the millions of euros that the government would have to pay oil companies if it simply ripped up existing gas and oil contracts.

Another unknown is the position of Spanish energy company Iberdrola, in charge of building the dams.

Correio da Manhã explains that the project involves the flooding of almost 1000 hectares in three locations (Daivões, Gouvães and Alto Tâmega) at a cost of €150 million.

The dams are scheduled to be up and running by 2023.

The initiative dates back to the Socialist government of José Sócrates, and began, writes Expresso, with a cheque for €303 million, delivered to the government in 2008.

It was “the biggest cheque” that Sócrates’ government ever received in relation to hydroelectric dam projects, adds Expresso.

EDP “paid a contribution of almost €232 million to construct plants at Fridão and Alvito, and €53 million for (a plant) at Foz-Tua”.

But as Correio de Manhã explains, Portuguese law does not establish any kind of protection for mineral deposits.

For that reason, scientists who have been studying the seams round the Tâmega since the 90s are not optimistic about being able to save them.

Público stresses that data collected so far points to the area possessing around 14 million tons worth of lithium deposits.

That has been worked out through soundings taken of two seams which indicated deposits of “more than half a million tons with concentrations largely above 1% of lithium oxide”.

“On this basis, the existence of 14 million tons “of the mineral across the area dubbed Barroso-Alvão is “inferred”, says Público.

Lima meantime believes that “all is not lost”. “The dam has not yet filled up”, he told the paper. “We are hoping that we can continue to get access to the site as it is urgent that we learn more about the (mineral) seams”, he said.

To this end, the science faculty has teamed up with international partners and hopes that with European funding it will get the go-ahead further studies.

“Our intention is to use several new technologies”, Lima told Público, describing “drones with optical and spectral sensors”.

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IMAGE: inforgrafia/ Jaime Figueiredo