Cáceres' energy and lithium voracity against water, the law and people

Plataforma Salvemos la Montaña de Cáceres, 1 April 2024

Overview of the Cáceres lithium mine project

The lithium mine project at San José de Valdeflorez, less than 2 km from the town of Cáceres, which has a population of 100,000, is a perfect example of the perversion of a part of public institutions and politics that puts the short-term profit of mining and its tentacles into society before the security of the water supply, its recognition and its protection. It was revealed in the city in 2017, along with various errors in the administrative process by which the research permits were granted.

An appeal was lodged against the granting of the permits, and the courts ruled in favour of the citizens' and environmental associations, halting research work on the open-cast mine project: these soils are protected from extractive activities because of their good state of conservation and their proximity to the town.

The Australian parent company Infinity Lithium, through various shell companies, is continuing its efforts to open the mine, now in an underground gallery, and with another company name, Extremadura New Energies, through a set of permits that overlap in space, the Cáceres mountain, and in time, with a mining law that allows one permit to be applied for after another, four permits in this case.

Although the end of the open-cast mine has been announced, this possibility has not been completely ruled out, and the case is complicated by the fact that it is still before the Supreme Court, due to an appeal by the regional government against one of the TSJEx rulings, while the administrative processing of the underground gallery mine project begins. In addition, the promoter continues to receive financial support from the European Commission, with the latest public support coming through the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Tourism. It also has the support of the regional government of Extremadura and Cáceres City Council.

Geological context

The city of Cáceres lies on an ancient hard rock peneplain in the west of the Iberian Peninsula. The Tagus and Guadiana rivers lie around 50-60 km to the north and south respectively, while next to the city, a syncline, a tectonic basin with porous rock, is home to an underground aquifer with a capacity of 13 million m³, of which 3.07 million m³ is renewable. This aquifer gushes to the surface uninterruptedly throughout the year at various times, including an upwelling that gives rise to the Marco, the only river that flows through the city and the source of the city's first primitive human settlements, such as Maltravieso.

This underground aquifer is already facing the typical problems of these resources due to poor urban planning or the permissiveness of the authorities: pollution, uncontrolled abstraction, urbanisation, unprotected industrialisation... although it has been periodically recognised over the last few decades, during each episode of summer drought, as a resource that should be protected. As proof of this, the City Council approved motions to this effect in 1990, 2018 and 2021, all of which were not carried out.

On the northern flank of the syncline, veins have emerged between Silurian shales, mineralising tin and lithium in particular. They were mined during the 20th century in small, low-yield galleries, the results of which are now indisputable, as this was a small-scale mining operation.

It is important to point out that around Cáceres there is a large treeless area that has been used for centuries for livestock farming. In this vast area of very low tree density, the town and, next to it, the Montaña de Cáceres and the Sierra de la Mosca stand out for a vast area of well-preserved Mediterranean woodland, olive groves and traditional pastures, as well as woodland cleared for the extensive livestock farming typical of the region. The Sierra and the trees perform important functions for the town and its inhabitants, including regulating temperature, improving air quality, controlling erosion and filtering water, among others.

Protection of the underground aquifer

Despite the need to recognise and protect this body of groundwater, public institutions and local, regional and national authorities are ignoring and disregarding this aquifer by expressly supporting the lithium mining project. The most recent application for protection was submitted by the Plataforma Salvemos la Montaña de Cáceres, which opposes the proposed lithium mine close to the town, in the Montaña de Cáceres, due to its obvious impacts given its location with multiple installations on the El Calerizo aquifer, and the close proximity of the town centre, just 1 km away, among other risks.

Following a crowdfunding campaign in 2021, a detailed report on the existence of the El Calerizo underground aquifer and the real threat posed by a lithium mine, at the time still planned for open-cast mining, was produced and a request was made to the Confederación Hidrográfica del Tajo to recognise it as a body of groundwater and protect it. The municipal council was asked to support the initiative, which was approved at a municipal plenary session. 

The response from the Confederación Hidrográfica del Tajo, the public body responsible for water management in the Tagus basin, was that it did not have sufficient data, that it did not currently recognise this body of groundwater and that, consequently, it would not protect it. To our knowledge, the Confederación has not taken any action to enable it to obtain this data.

A mining company that plays by the rules

Taking advantage of this response, the mining company has changed its name to Extremadura New Energies, its rhetoric and its open-cast mining project to an underground drift mining project with a dual intention: a blatant greenwashing manoeuvre, and an attempt to evade the town planning legislation that prohibits mining activities in the Valdeflores valley, in the centre of the Sierra, where the deposit is located.

Not only is the impact on the soil, water and neighbouring populations not reduced with an underground gallery mine, but the representatives of the mining company and the public authorities are trying to hide it. The mine blatantly increases the impact on groundwater and the amount of energy required to operate it.

At the same time, the mining company has launched an aggressive publicity campaign, both through news items and advertising space in the local and regional press extolling the merits of the project, and through its Foundation, set up to sponsor sports teams, craft fairs and local film awards, among other things. They also give training courses, curiously none on mining, but on batteries, an activity that has nothing to do with the mining project or the lithium hydroxide processing plant presented, which has not prevented this "Academy" from being subsidised by the regional public employment service with everyone's money.

It was also a case of "revolving doors" when, in 2020, the mining company hired the man who, a few days earlier, had been a local councillor and, before that, regional coordinator of the Ciudadanos political party as head of institutional relations. Shortly afterwards, he entered the office of the president of the Junta de Extremadura, then the PSOE regional government, to drink a coffee, according to the president, Guillermo Fernández Vara.

The icing on the cake

Over the last few months, the mining company, the press and political representatives have tried to put a friendly, even sustainable face on the project. Ironically, they have reached agreements with the owners of the land concerned, which now includes thousands of olive trees, mainly in the area planned for the landfill, the settling ponds and the chemical plant, as well as cork and holm oaks, almond, olive and chestnut trees... in the area where the deposit is located. All these activities provide sustainable employment in the region.

In fact, the threats of expropriation seem to have borne fruit with two landowners who have leased their land. The mining company is cryptic and does not buy the land, but leases it, leaving contaminated land to the owners in the future, who, in the case of Cáceres, acknowledge that it has high levels of arsenic and sulphides. The height of the lie was reached recently, when the company boasted on the Australian stock exchange that it had drilled wells into the Calerizo aquifer, while in town it tried to exonerate itself by claiming that it had nothing to do with these wells, which had been counted by the neighbours, and by trying to make people believe that the water used in the mine came from the town's wastewater treatment plant. In communications to their investors, they also claim to have a better knowledge of the terrain thanks to these wells.

Similarly, in the first draft, reference was made to the existing connection between the El Calerizo underground aquifer and another groundwater system in the Sierra. However, in the new documents, this connection has been removed in order to downplay the importance of using natural water, i.e. water present underground, and of filling the galleries with 60% of the toxic waste from the mine itself; the rest of the waste is to be stored on the surface.

Supporters and opponents

This attack on existing legislation and on the water of the city of Cáceres is being carried out in the name of energy transition and with the support of the European Commission, through the European Battery Alliance. As the Vice-President of the European Commission, Maros Sefcovic, said during a meeting with a company representative.

Recently, in 2023, the Spanish Ministry of Industry, Trade and Tourism approved an 18.8 million euro subsidy to the mining company for its project, although it is not real and has not been approved. This money is in addition to previous public funding from the EU through the EIT InnoEnergy Institute.

In the first few years after the project was presented, the mayor of Cáceres at the time, Elena Nevado, of the Partido Popular, rejected the project because of the few jobs it would create and its high impact. This opposition, motivated by public mobilisation, did not deter the mining company, and support for the project has since been expressed by the town's new mayor, Luis Salaya, of the Socialist Party, and recently by the new town planning councillor, Tirso Leal, of the PP, who even stated in the press that the city's General Municipal Plan, or Urban Development Plan, did not expressly prohibit mining in the galleries and could therefore be authorised, even though this plan expressly prohibits "extractive activities" in this area. In other soils, the plan establishes a minimum distance of 2 km from the town.

The town council's position is now clearly in favour of the mine. On the one hand, the councillor and the town planning department have changed their position against their previous reports of the last six years, which they even defended in court and which concluded that the test pits were an extractive activity. On the other hand, the new mayor claims to know nothing about the project, despite having met with the company and the citizens' platform, and takes the actions of the town planning department for granted.

There is no doubt about the regional government either, with statements in favour of the project constantly appearing in the press, most recently from the government spokesperson of the Junta de Extremadura, from the PP, as well as from the Minister for the Economy, Employment and Digital Transformation. The current president of the Junta, María Guardiola de Cáceres, a member of the PP, has since her appointment rejected the Platform's requests for a meeting, although she has met with the mining company. The new PSOE representative, now in opposition in the regional government, has already stated that he has always supported the mining company's initiative, even in the case of open-cast mining. What he forgot to add is that the initiative he supports goes against the law and the general interest of the population, according to several court rulings.

Fortunately, the courts agree with the arguments of the Plataforma Salvemos la Montaña de Cáceres and other organisations and defend the general interest of the people.

We will continue to oppose the projects of certain politicians and mining companies, always defending legality, water, air, health, soil, trees, the sustainable economy, etc. against highly polluting projects that overexploit our resources, especially water.