Mining turned Indonesian seas red. The drive for greener cars could herald a new toxic tide. – by Ian Morse (Washington Post – November 20, 2019)

POMALAA, Indonesia — Where forested hills dip into the sea, Sahman Ukas scoops up rusty-red topsoil. His hands hold nickel that is more concentrated than many of the world’s richest deposits.

It’s no wonder, then, that on Sahman’s island of Sulawesi, companies have opened several mines in the past 15 years to feed the global market for stainless steel — made ductile and tough with nickel.

Now, a growing appetite for electric vehicles is creating new demand for nickel, whose chemical derivatives are increasingly used in cathodes of lithium-ion batteries. But the push for clean energy is coming at an environmental cost to forests and fisheries in one of the world’s most biodiverse regions.

Sahman does not know how much more his fishing village can handle. In the decades of meeting nickel-for-steel demand, the seas have turned red, marine life has left past the horizon, and the exhaust of smelters has triggered respiratory problems.

“We’ve been on the sidelines this whole time,” said Sahman, who is in his 50s. “Villages should instruct companies, not companies instructing villages.” Down the road from Sahman’s village, the global market has placed what will probably become a main source for the vital nickel component in electric-vehicle batteries.

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