Will the dream of renewable energy in the “Lithium Valley” around the Salton Sea be a nightmare for surrounding communities?
The area contains huge amounts of lithium, and demand for electric cars — which use lithium-ion batteries — is booming. So, we are at a vital moment to meaningfully engage residents and ensure that future decisions and actions not only prevent harm but also benefit local communities.
Early community involvement before the work to extract the lithium begins in earnest will enable preventative action that considers the existing circumstances of surrounding communities and ensures no further harm, which is essential for equitable progress and true climate resilience.
It is necessary for decision-makers and researchers to partner with residents and use existing local knowledge to plan a future that is equitable and conscious of their wellbeing.
Unfortunately, there is a lack of expertise and general knowledge on the potential consequences of this development and technology on neighboring residents and ecosystems, especially on the already receding and polluted Salton Sea. That makes this the perfect moment to actively involve the community in the learning process from the start.
Residents have been vocal about their concerns and desires to be actively involved in actions regarding Lithium Valley. For example, we hosted a community forum with Luis Olmedo and Frank Ruiz, members of the Lithium Valley Commission, in which the community asked a plethora of questions and expressed their desires for increased engagement opportunities.
The main concerns raised by the community include community benefits, water use, air quality, local access to quality employment opportunities, and impacts to their surrounding environment. To address some of these concerns, residents requested the distribution of accessible and easily digestible educational material, and more spaces for the community to have fluid conversation about Lithium Valley.
The communities around the Salton Sea endure numerous environmental issues and pollutants that jeopardize their well-being. The Salton Sea’s receding shoreline exposes the air to arsenic, selenium, chromium, zin, and lead. And agricultural activities like open burning and pesticide use increase particulate matter in the air, leading to devastating health impacts.
There is a visible pattern in that communities most affected by the climate crisis are also experiencing environmental injustice and socioeconomic inequalities. Since California sees itself as a global leader in climate change policy, it must establish a precedent that ensures that climate-resilient technology does not jeopardize communities already impacted by the climate crisis. The state can start with Lithium Valley.
While lithium may be essential for climate-resilient technologies, we cannot perpetuate the harmful history of resource extraction that hurts local communities to further global climate goals. As much of the state is watching this move forward with excitement at the possibilities of producing lithium locally and being leaders in the development of zero-emission technology, it leaves the communities in the region with fear and uncertainty of how this will impact them.
We are at an essential point to have democratic conversations that allow residents, researchers, industry, politicians, and other stakeholders to learn about lithium extraction and make decisions with the future of the region and its residents at the forefront.
The Lithium Valley Commission, Assembly member Eduardo Garcia, the California Energy Commission, and any other involved governmental agency should ensure conversations are transparent and inclusive. They also need to address stakeholder comments and requests to ensure that the communities already affected by the climate crisis and environmental injustice do not also carry the burden of extractive renewable energy.
Mariela Loera of Coachella is a policy advocate for Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability and works in collaboration with the residents of the unincorporated communities of Thermal, Oasis, Mecca, and North Shore on advocating for just policies and representation. Her focus in the region is on issues regarding climate, transportation, and air quality, including environmental justice in relation to the Salton Sea.