International mining giant Rio Tinto says it is “exploring all options” and “reviewing the legal basis” of the Serbian government’s decision to halt the company’s lithium and borate project in the Jadar area.
After coming under intense pressure from massive protests regarding the anticipated environmental impact of the proposed mine, Belgrade revoked the spatial plan for the project in January. The City of Loznica had already revoked the spatial plan, in December last year.
According to Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić, Rio Tinto “absolutely didn’t provide enough information” to authorities and local communities in the affected areas of Jadar and Rađevina.
“All permits were annulled… we put an end to Rio Tinto in Serbia,” she declared, just weeks ahead of Serbia’s general election on 3 April.
Jadar would be Rio Tinto’s first lithium project, with the company’s first saleable production expected in 2027. The mine’s full production would entail 58,000 tons of battery-grade lithium carbonate, 160,000 tons of boric acid and 255,000 tons of sodium sulfate, according to Rio Tinto’s 2021 annual report.
Because jadarite is a new mineral, Rio Tinto has spent the last decade building a pilot extraction plant at the company’s science hub in Melbourne, Australia. The mining giant was readying to ship the trial plant to Serbia in August 2021.
Unsurprisingly, Rio Tinto has expressed disappointment in Belgrade’s January decision.
“While the benefits of projects like Jadar are significant and global in enabling the energy transition, we acknowledge the concerns of the local community and have worked hard to mitigate local impacts while maximizing the potential social and economic benefits to Serbia,” reads Rio Tinto’s 2021 annual report.
“[We] are committed to exploring all options and are reviewing the legal basis of the decision and the implications for our activities and people in Serbia,” it continues.
Rio Tinto’s response has heightened fears that the company may take the matter to court. In the meantime, a bloc of environmental activists including Kreni-promeni, Association of Environmental Organizations of Serbia (SEOS), and Ecological Uprising are demanding a nationwide ban on lithium and borate mining.
“After the election, maybe Rio Tinto will be back,” says Savo Manojlovic of the Kreni-Promeni, or Go-Change, group. “We don’t know that If we don’t have the law.”
A core material in electric bar batteries, lithium is fast becoming one of the world’s most precious metals amid a global shift to more renewable energy sources. Lithium mining projects, however, pose a major threat to the surrounding environment.