Energy

BYE BYE, BIRDIE? How Electric Car Batteries Might Be Hurting The Flamingos

REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

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Craig Boudreau Vice Reporter

Tesla’s plans to ramp up electric car production could be life-threatening for South American flamingos, local environmentalists warn.

Flamingos like to quench their thirst in shallow lagoons around the Atacama Desert in South America, but lithium miners like those shallow lagoons too, for different reasons. Lithium miners know to look in the brine of the world’s driest desert for their product: As the sun dries out the brine and leaves a concentrate they can obtain lithium from.

Lithium is mined for use in electric car batteries like those in a Tesla or Chevy Volt. As the number of electric cars sold continues to increase, the need for the lithium batteries that power them increases as well. That could potentially decrease the amount of water flamingos have to drink from in the “world’s driest place.”

Elon Musk, who owns Tesla and has come under fire for the claim he is hurting flamingos, has taken to Twitter to respond.

“They are pumping up an absurd amount of water,” Rolando Humire Coca, lead biochemist for the Naturalist Society of San Pedro de Atacama, told Bloomberg on Monday. “If they keep using the same methods to extract water, the consequences will be disastrous. All forms of life will be destroyed.”

The Chilean government set up a parliamentary commission to look at the depletion of resources, but the commission found no link between lithium mining and water depletion. Yet the Chilean Forestry Commission and Sea World have both claimed a decrease in flamingo numbers in South America. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service even lists the Andean flamingo as an endangered species.

Salar de Atacama is the largest salt flat in Chile’s Atacama desert and is also home to everyone’s favorite lawn ornament: flamingos. In fact, there is even a national park in Chile named for the pink birds: Los Flamencos National Reserve.

For reference, Chile holds 20 percent of the world’s total lithium deposits and was the No. 2 producer of the metal in 2015. Tesla has also announced an increase in production of their electric vehicles, which could further drain water from the lagoons flamingos favor.

According to inverse.com, Rockwood Holdings and Sociedad Quimica & Minera de Chile SA (SQM) — the two companies currently mining lithium in the Atacama — pump out 1,650 liters of brine a second. Inverse.com also notes that Rockwood plans to ramp up production by 300 liters per second.

In their defense, Rockwood and SQM have said they monitor the lagoons they work with and have found no decrease in water levels. The Bloomberg article notes that the companies have more than 300 stations situated throughout their work zones to monitor water levels, and the companies told Bloomberg that their operations “haven’t affected directly or indirectly any aspect of the flamingo population.”

The Chilean Forestry Commission also surveyed six of the lagoons being used and found no decrease in five, and only a moderate decrease in the sixth.

“The salt flats are like a complex pipe system; if you take water from one side, it will affect the other,” Humire Coca told Bloomberg. “Fifteen years ago I used to swim surrounded by flamingos in the Cejar lagoon, and today you are lucky if you see one there.”

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