Dead fish in Tibet's Lichu River, believed by locals to have been killed by pollution from the Minyak Lhagang Lithium Mine on 4 May 2016. Photo: Tibet Policy Institute

By Tenzin Palden
4 June 2016

(Tibet Policy Institute) – On 4 May 2016, a sudden mass death of fish in the Lichu River in Minyak Lhagang, Dartsedo County in Karze Prefecture brought hundreds of local Tibetans out on the street, protesting against a lithium mining company (Ronda Lithium Co Ltd) that released mine waste into the Lichu River, a tributary of Nakchu/Yalong river, the biggest river that merges with Yangtse downstream.

Yet another case of contaminated mine waste released into Tibetan rivers by a Chinese mining company clearly contradicts Beijing’s call for Green Development in their 13th Five Year plan. In recent years, there have been an increase in the number of cases of environmental degradation caused by Chinese mining companies in Tibet, resulting in more than 20 large scale mining-related protests since 2009.

The source of lithium at Minyak Lhagang in Dartsedo is pegmatite, economically most profitable lithium minerals from hard rock. Minyak Lhagang lithium mining site may have the same high concentration of lithium as the adjacent Jiajika lithium mine, which is considered as the China’s largest pegmatite type lithium deposit.

The extraction of lithium has significant environmental impact, resulting in water and soil pollution. Unfortunately, extraction and processing of lithium does not involve clean and green technology as advertised in lithium based products such as electric and hybrid cars.

Tibetans in Minyak Lhagang protest at the lithium mining site owned by Ronda Lithium Co Ltd. in October 2013. Photo: Tibet Policy Institute

Many parts of China still carry out traditional lithium mining in both brine and hard rock lithium. Traditional lithium mining for hard rock involves roasting and calcination process at high temperature followed by water leaching. Water leaching is a process in which lithium is treated with high concentration of acids such as hydrochloric acid or sulphuric acid in water for high lithium recovery. Higher the concentration of acid used in the water leaching process, higher is the lithium recovery rate.

Local Tibetans believe that the death of hundreds of fish is caused by the poisoned water from the mining site and suspect leakage from the water leaching site. The highly concentrated acid stored for water leaching process might have leaked and drained into the Lichu River, which in turn may have led to the contamination of water, causing death of hundreds of fish.

The optimum pH level of majority of the aquatic animals lies between pH 6.5 to 9. Any further change in the optimum pH causes strain on animal physiology, reduces hatching and survival rate. Aquatic animals are more sensitive towards acids than alkalis. A change in pH with 0.5 towards acid from pure water (pH 7) causes aquatic animals in an abnormal environment and cannot survive when the pH level is lower than 3. Highly concentrated acids in the local river due to leakage of water leaching site may have altered the level of pH to as low as 3 causing death of fish and damage to the entire local river ecosystem. [more]

Lichu River Poisoned – Case of Minyak Lhagang Lithium Mine Protest

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