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Weogufka hosts Westwater to discuss graphite project
By Christa Jennings
The Weogufka Neighborhood Watch held its meeting last Thursday evening and hosted representatives with Westwater Resources and Lake Martin Area Economic Development Alliance, as well as Central Alabama Community College President Jeff Lynn, to discuss the Coosa County graphite project and hear from the public.
Elected officials present for the meeting included Rep. Ed Oliver, Sheriff Michael Howell, Superintendent of Education David Stover, Revenue Commissioner Debra Lamberth, Judge of Probate Richard Dean, District 5 County Commissioner Lamar Daugherty, Board of Education District 4 Member Sharon Coffman, Board of Education District 5 Member Gaylen Adams, and Rockford Mayor Scott White. Other non-elected officials present were Assistant District Attorney Joe Ficquette and County Administrator Amy Gilliland.
The meeting was held last Thursday evening in the old school gym. The Neighborhood Watch meeting was not broadly publicized and was mostly shared via word of mouth because of safety concerns with COVID-19 and wanting to limit crowd size.
Chris Jones, who has served as president and chief executive officer of Westwater Resources since 2013, was the main guest speaker for the evening. He gave the crowd an overview of “who” Westwater Resources is and what it wants to do.
He provided overall information on the company, as well as more localized information relating specifically to the Coosa Graphite Project. He said the graphite-processing plant in Kellyton at the Lake Martin Industrial Park is expected to employ 100 full-time employees with an average hourly wage of $21.15.
He said they expect to have that plant completed and operational by the end of 2022 or beginning of 2023. Jones also stated that they would be hiring local people to work at the plant.
During his presentation, Jones also shared that they expect to start commercial production of battery-grade graphite at the Kellyton plant in 2023 using graphite bought on the market, but not from China.
Specifically, it was shared that the company has secured “natural graphite feedstock” with a contract through 2027 from “non-China sources.” The Kellyton processing plant is expected to produce 7,500 tons of battery-grade graphite each year initially, with that eventually expanding to 15,000 tons per year.
The actual mining of the Coosa project is not expected to begin until 2028, as major permits are required at both the local and federal level for a mining operation, and it will take more time and work to get the mine up and running.
With the mine expected to be in the Weogufka area, and the graphite deposit running through a large portion of the community, Jones shared their company’s commitment and said that they pledge they will not ruin the land. Further, he said that they will provide updates as they go along with the project to help everyone stay informed.
Additional information provided at the meeting was that the Coosa Graphite Project is a total of 42,000 acres and is a “large graphite resource” in the United States with 3.9 million tons.
The area was mined for general-use graphite from the late 1800s through the 1950s. Mining rights were acquired in 2018, and the new mining operations are projected to begin in 2028.
Jones also explained that there is a growing market and growing demand for battery-grade graphite, as it is used in electric cars, and it is projected that many more electric cars will be on the roads in coming years.
According to information provided at the meeting, the nation currently imports 100% of its natural graphite, and China controls 75% of the worldwide graphite production.
The Coosa Graphite Project would allow Westwater Resources and Alabama Graphite Products, a subsidiary of Westwater Resources, to provide graphite to battery producers for electric vehicles, traditional lead-acid batteries in vehicles and other equipment, and batteries for electronic products such as smartphones and computers.
Following his presentation, Jones took written questions from attendees, although some answers could not be provided at that time because of the timeline for the mining operation being 7 years away.
In answering some of the written questions, such as if the company really would hire local people or bring in workers from out of state, Jones said that they are counting on local people to show an interest, apply online for the jobs and be trained for those jobs.
Regarding ruining the land, Jones again pledged that they would not ruin the land, adding that they have layers of protection in place so they can guarantee that they will not ruin any creeks.
Concerning how the county will benefit from the project, Jones said through employment, with workers taking in and spending money in the county. Additionally, he said the county would benefit from the company paying taxes.
He said the company currently has tax abatements, but stated that the county still gets money from those abatements.
Regarding the deteriorating roadways and if Westwater Resources will pay for infrastructure, Jones said that they will indirectly pay for it through taxes and such, but said that it is up to the county how that money is spent.
After answering various written questions, the floor was open for people in the audience to directly ask questions.
One attendee, Sarah Murchison, addressed Jones with pointed statements and questions, including concerns with what the project will mean for local property owners and what they have seen in the past.
“That’s what we’re seeing from our side,” Murchison said. “We’re seeing you coming in, through what we have had for generations. We see you coming in and taking advantage of poor little Coosa County that doesn’t have anything else. …This may look like progress, but 25 years from now, I don’t want a mining operation in my front yard.”
“I understand,” Jones answered. “…We wouldn’t be here if we weren’t hopeful. We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t think that we could develop the deposit and mine in that particular property. All I can say at this point is that the mine has yet to be designed. We have a general idea, but we’ve got a lot of work to do before that happens.”
Jones said that they ask everyone to be patient, adding that everyone will get a chance as they go through the permitting process to have all of their comments, questions and concerns addressed.
He said individuals can submit their comments to federal agencies who oversee the mining permits.
“What I ask is for your indulgence for just a little while as we go through this process,” Jones said. “We invite your comments. We invite your concerns. We want to address those as we go along to make sure we can do this for the benefit of the community, for the benefit of us, for the benefit of those people that are going to work for us, and for the benefit of those who are going to use the batteries made from these materials.”
Chad Odom, LMAEDA executive director, also briefly addressed the audience. He described the project as a “huge opportunity” for the area, adding that the company committed $500,000.
Odom said that he has a passion for rural areas and small towns. Regarding the processing plant to be located in the industrial park in Kellyton, he said that they want to get jobs in the area that “alter wage dynamics.”
CACC President Jeff Lynn also briefly spoke and said that he is excited to help the company and that he is “blown away” by the capabilities and innovation of the company.
He added that he is also excited about what is going on in Coosa County with the school system, saying that they are growing talent in Coosa County.
“The possibilities out there are phenomenal,” Lynn said.”We’re excited about this particular project. We want to be a true partner.”
Those interested in information about applying for a job can visit www.alabamagraphiteproducts.com for information about employment opportunities.
Jones also asked that everyone share their comments and concerns with them, saying that they want to hear from the public.
“Give us your thoughts,” Jones stated. “Give us those comments. Let us address your issues as we go along. Let’s make sure that we can build something that mutually benefits in most ways, if not all. Let’s make sure we can provide those jobs. Let us provide those taxes. Let us help these communities grow in a way that makes sense and is good for our company, as well.”
Those interested in contacting Westwater Resources with their comments, questions, or concerns can do so at www.westwaterresources.net/contact or by emailing info@WestwaterResources.net.