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Chile lithium miner SQM says to slash water, brine use at Atacama

SANTIAGO, Oct 8 (Reuters) - Chilean miner SQM said late Thursday it would immediately slash its use of both fresh water and lithium-rich brine from Chile’s Atacama salt flat in a push to reduce the overall impact of its operations. The announcement comes two months after SQM lost a high profile legal battle that forced it to begin again on a plan to make amends for over-pumping brine from the environmentally sensitive Atacama. The salt flat is home to nearly one-quarter of the world’s current supply of lithium, a key ingredient in the batteries that power electric vehicles.

The company said in a statement announcing its “Sustainable Development Plan” that it would voluntarily reduce its use of brine by 20% from November this year, with a goal of slashing it by 50% by 2030.

“We do not believe that this brine extraction reduction will have an impact on our near- or long-term lithium production,” the company said in the statement.

Soaring lithium demand has raised questions about whether Atacama can support current and future levels of lithium production along with the needs of sprawling nearby copper mines, a booming tourism industry, and indigenous communities.

SQM, which has come under increasing scrutiny by environmentalists, carmakers and indigenous activists in recent years, also committed on Thursday to “immediately” cutting its use of continental freshwater from Atacama by nearly one-third versus 2019 levels.

The company also pledged to produce carbon-neutral lithium by 2030 as part of a larger, $100 million emissions reduction drive.

CEO Ricardo Ramos said in the statement the sweeping new goals were compatible with ramping up production to meet the expected spike in demand.

“There is no tradeoff between being cost-competitive and being leaders in sustainability,” Ramos said. “These are commitments that we assume out of conviction and voluntarily.”

Reporting by Dave Sherwood; editing by Richard Pullin

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