NEWRY, Maine — Five years ago, after much of their land had been logged in Western Maine, Gary Freeman and a colleague were bushwhacking through a thicket of raspberry shrubs and maple saplings, searching for a treasure they suspected could be buried beneath the mud and moss carpeting the sloped ground.
Following coordinates cited in a decades-old geological survey of the area, the veteran gem hunters began clearing the bramble and digging. Soon after, they hit something solid. They used hoes to scrape away the dirt and were astonished by their discovery: enormous, flaky white crystals the size of telephone poles.
“It was stunning to see,” Freeman said of the massive crystals, which took millions of years to form from the molten rock that once rose from the Earth’s mantle. “We kept digging, and they just kept coming and coming.”
What they unearthed here on the north side of Plumbago Mountain was the ore of a newly precious and highly sought metal: lithium, a vital ingredient of a carbon-free future, essential for running electric cars and storing solar energy. By some estimates, the deposits near Newry may be the largest in the country — with the potential to become a critical domestic supply for automakers and so valuable that it could provide a needed boost to Maine’s economy.
Surveys conducted by Freeman and his wife, Mary, have estimated that the lithium in the massive crystals on their 5,000-acre property here could be worth more than $1.5 billion, which was first reported by The Maine Monitor.
But none of their ore is being mined here. The state has refused to allow it, citing Maine’s strict environmental laws. The Freemans have appealed to the courts. A wave of competing bills is making its way through the Legislature — some that would allow mining to proceed, others that would ban it — fueling a debate that has pitted a clean energy future against unknown environmental impacts.
“If we want a clean energy transition, we’re going to need a lot of lithium, and mining is going to have to happen somewhere,” said Ian Lange, director of the mineral and energy economics program at the Colorado School of Mines, who has been monitoring the developments in Maine. “If we don’t make electric vehicles, we make more internal combustion engines. Blocking these mines is Big Oil’s best friend.”
Environmental advocates and some local residents have urged lawmakers to be wary of the Freemans’ proposal, noting that previous mining projects have led to substantial pollution and the creation of Superfund sites in Maine. They worry that extracting spodumene, a multicolored crystal that contains the lithium, could contaminate drinking water, lead to increased air pollution, and radically transform this small town of 400 full-time residents that’s home to the Sunday River Ski Resort.
And if the valuable crystals found on the Freemans’ property were processed in the area to extract lithium from the spodumene, they worry that the waste products, or so-called tailings, could react with the air and water to create sulfuric acid that could do long-lasting damage to not just the water supply but the entire local ecosystem. Experts have differing opinions about the possible impact.
“While the transition away from fossil fuels is paramount, we cannot do that at the expense of Maine’s water and other critical resources,” said Jan Morrill, the state’s tailings campaign manager for Earthworks, a national environmental advocacy group. “Rolling back Maine’s regulations . . . would undermine the state’s efforts to protect clean water and the communities and businesses that rely on it.”
The Freemans, who own a successful laboratory instruments company in Florida, call themselves rock hounds and discovered their love for gem hunting in the 1990s while hiking the Appalachian Trail in Maine.
They started buying land in the state’s rocky western hills, after decades of hunting there for valuable stones. The area’s geological history, as a collision point of ancient continents, made it prime gem country. And an old Maine Geological Survey suggested their land in Newry could have large, valuable spodumene crystals.
After their discovery on Plumbago Mountain in 2018, the Freemans sought a quarry license from state regulators to mine up to 10 acres of their property by drilling and blasting, truck it to a nearby quarry for crushing, and then take it to another facility for sorting and labeling. They promised there would be no chemical processing of the crystals to extract lithium in Maine.
But officials in the state’s Department of Environmental Protection denied their request. In a letter last summer to the Freemans, the regulators said that they recognized lithium was critical to curbing climate-harming emissions but that their proposed mine violated a state law prohibiting the extraction of metallic minerals in open pits of more than 3 acres. The law, enacted in 2017 after a backlash against pollution from a range of open pit mines in Maine, is among the country’s strictest.
The Freemans appealed to a citizen body that oversees the department’s rulings and to Kennebec County Superior Court, arguing that spodumene isn’t a metal but rock, and that it’s not toxic like commonly mined metals, such as copper and zinc.
The “excavation of spodumene is indistinguishable from what occurs at granite quarries,” they said in their complaint, which called the state’s decision “absurd” and “contrary to accepted principles of mineralogy.”
State officials told the Freemans it would require the Legislature to amend the law before they and others could mine spodumene in Maine.
In response to questions from the Globe about the state’s decision, DEP Commissioner Melanie Loyzim said: “Valuable surficial metallic mineral deposits [such as lithium] may exist in many areas of Maine, and the Legislature should determine if changes to the open-pit mining prohibition are appropriate to support efforts to battle climate change.”
A bill proposed by state Representative Mike Soboleski, a Republican who represents Newry, would simply amend the existing law to classify the kind of lithium-bearing crystals on the Freemans’ property as rocks, allowing the Freemans and anyone else in the state to mine discoveries of spodumene.
“This is something we need to do,” said Soboleski, noting the state has ambitious goals for reducing its carbon emissions. “The US government considers lithium to be critical to our defense industry — for solar panels, electric vehicles, and much more. This bill would benefit the state and the whole world.”
Other lawmakers skeptical of proposals to mine the state’s lithium are promoting bills that would either require more study or impose bans.
Representative Lydia Crafts, a Democrat from the midcoast town of Newcastle, has proposed establishing a state commission to study whether it would make environmental sense to mine spodumene.
“We need to better understand the complexities, risks, and benefits of any legislative decision in regards to mining and our climate goals,” she said.
Representative Margaret O’Neil, another Democrat from the coastal city of Saco, has proposed a moratorium on spodumene mining in Maine.
“We are in a climate crisis, not a lithium crisis,” she said. “We should pick sites and technologies for mining where lithium extraction causes the least harm. ”
A number of environmental advocates in the state have raised similar concerns, with some suggesting that the Freemans’ discovery may be more hype than reality. They’ve also pointed to research suggesting that lithium can be extracted in less harmful ways, such as from salt-flat brines, without open-pit mines or controversial evaporation ponds.
Morrill and others also urged more recycling of lithium-ion batteries as a way of reducing demand and the need for more mining.
“Before looking to open new mines, we should prioritize the alternatives that are already available for mineral sourcing,” she said. “With the right policies and incentives in place, we can build a sustainable minerals economy in which new mining makes up only a small fraction of the supply.”
While the vast majority of electronic devices don’t get recycled — the United Nations estimates just 20 percent of more than 50 million tons of so-called e-waste gets recycled properly every year — it’s unlikely recycling would be enough to make up for the growing demand for lithium.
The International Energy Agency estimates that by the end of the decade existing mines and those under construction will supply only about half the amount of lithium needed to meet global demand.
The rising demand for lithium has also inflated the price — by as much as nine times since 2020, though it has fallen in recent months. The price is expected to continue to surge over the coming years, as hundreds of millions of new electric cars are likely to be produced.
John Slack, a retired geologist with the US Geological Survey who coauthored a paper last year on the lithium deposits in Maine, called the risk of pollution from mining the spodumene in Maine “very low.”
“To my knowledge, no scientific studies have documented environmental harm to people or animals by lithium runoff in surface or ground waters from quarries or mines, because unlike many metals, lithium is not considered a health hazard at low concentrations,” he said.
He urged state lawmakers to update the mining laws to allow for the extraction of lithium, saying the area’s spodumene lacks the sulfide minerals that can cause pollution. Moreover, he noted, the processing of the ore into lithium would likely take place at a new plant being built in Tennessee, which last year received a $142 million federal grant to process lithium from other mines in the United States.
In nearby Andover, where the population has plummeted since the furniture maker Ethan Allen shut its mills more than a decade ago, residents had mixed feelings about the proposed mining. Trucks carrying the large rocks would likely come and go through on their way to the Freemans’ mine.
At Mills Market on Main Street, where the whoopie pies are made with maple syrup and regulars have framed photos hanging in the restaurant, co-owner Joe Martin was all for it.
“We should be exploiting our lithium deposits, rather than relying on China or the Congo, where they don’t have the same environmental standards we have,” said Martin, 68, who for decades has owned an old mica mine in the area.
But one of his customers, Kimberly Peare, said she had deep reservations.
She ticked off her concerns: contaminated ground water, disturbed wildlife, impeded water flow, among other unknowns.
“When you mess around with the ground, it disrupts things underneath, and you can’t see it — and it may be years before you find the problems,” said Peare, 47, who owns a cattle farm in the area. “They should leave our wilderness alone.”
For the Freemans’ part, five years after their discovery, they hope their neighbors won’t view their mining proposal as a choice between preserving the wilderness and a potential economic boom.
“It shouldn’t be either or,” Mary Freeman said. “We want the economic benefits, but we also benefit from Maine continuing to be Vacationland.”