A fire at the nation’s only lithium mine nearly forced the evacuation of the Esmeralda County town of Silver Peak on Monday.
Esmeralda County Sheriff Ken Elgan said about 100 barrels of lithium stored at the Rockwood mine, 215 miles northwest of Las Vegas, caught fire and burned for around eight hours.
Authorities had a school bus ready to clear out some residents in the event that noxious smoke from the fire began to blow in the direction of Silver Peak, about 4 miles away.
“We were prepared to evacuate the town if the winds changed,” Elgan said. “Mother Nature worked in our favor.”
Silver Peak is home to about 100 people.
A hazardous materials crew contracted out of Las Vegas was on the scene of the metal fire on Tuesday cleaning up the mess, Elgan said.
No injuries were reported.
According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, burning lithium gives off fumes that can be irritating or toxic.
The sheriff said Alkali Road, which crosses through the mine property between Silver Peak and Goldfield, was closed for about 30 hours as a result of the fire. The dirt road has since reopened.
Teri Williams, spokeswoman for the Nevada Department of Business and Industry, said state mine safety inspectors are investigating the incident. Early indications are the fire was sparked by a chemical reaction caused by rainwater seeping into old drums of lithium.
“The drums were stored safely away from the mining operation, so there wasn’t any threat to life or property,” Williams said.
The mine has operated since the mid-1960s. It was acquired in 2015 by North Carolina-based Albermarle Corp., the world’s leading producer of lithium.
In an email Tuesday, Susan Richardson, senior director of communications for Albermarle, said: “The safety of our neighbors and employees is our priority, and we are actively working with local authorities to determine the cause.”
The Nevada Division of Environmental Protection is also tracking what happened in Silver Peak.
Agency spokeswoman JoAnn Kittrell said the mine has already submitted a so-called spill report indicating the release of about eight drums of lithium onto the ground and into the air. Kittrell said the spill appears to be localized and contained.
“It’s a pretty remote location from my understanding,” she said.
Contact Henry Brean at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0350. Follow @RefriedBrean on Twitter.
An underground lake of metal
To extract lithium from the ground near Silver Peak requires pumps, ponds and some patience.
The metal is suspended in briny groundwater beneath the vast Clayton Valley dry lake bed.
The brackish water is pumped from the ground and moved through a series of evaporation ponds to refine the mixture, a process that takes about two years.
Once it reaches the proper concentration, the brine is piped several miles to the mill in Silver Peak, where it gets turned into the base chemical lithium carbonate and several other compounds.
The material has a wide variety of uses, from scrubbers that keep deadly gas from building up in space capsules to eyeglasses that tint when exposed to the sun. It is also used in lubricants, pharmaceuticals, countertops and, most famously, in lithium batteries.
— Henry Brean