Southwest Arkansas and the promise of ‘green’ lithium extraction

A newly tapped resource near El Dorado has the potential to change the world — but at what cost to the surrounding area?

By: - Wednesday March 1, 2023 11:00 am

Southwest Arkansas and the promise of ‘green’ lithium extraction

A newly tapped resource near El Dorado has the potential to change the world — but at what cost to the surrounding area?

By: - 11:00 am

Standard Lithium signage at offices on East Elm Street in downtown El Dorado. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate 02/28/2023)

Standard Lithium signage at offices on East Elm Street in downtown El Dorado. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate 02/28/2023)

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series looking at the promise and possible environmental peril of lithium extraction in Southwest Arkansas. Part Two can be found here.

At 4:30 p.m., Jan. 10, 1921, the Busey No. 1 well drilled 2,233 feet and sent a thick black column of gas, oil, and water through the top of the derrick, a moment that irrevocably changed the future of El Dorado, Arkansas. 

Just shy of a century later, on the morning of Sept. 21, 2020, Standard Lithium, a Vancouver-based company focused on “green” lithium extraction, streamed a virtual ribbon cutting for its LiSTR Direct Lithium Extraction Technology Demonstration Plant — marking the start of a possible new era for the energy industry in Arkansas.

For just shy of half an hour, viewers heard from a series of Standard Lithium employees and Arkansas politicians — Gov. Asa Hutchinson, U.S. Sens. Tom Cotton and John Boozman, and U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman key among them. They spoke about Standard Lithium’s potential impact on the local and global economy — and the ways in which this virtually untapped resource in El Dorado might play a role in answering the global demand for lithium in the years to come. 

Demand for lithium, which was placed on the U.S. government’s list of critical minerals in 2022, is projected to “grow by a factor of 5 to 10 in the next decade,” according to the Department of Energy’s National Blueprint for Lithium Batteries 2021-2030.

In 2020, the Lithium Industry Association (LIA) forecast global demand would grow from 292,000 metric tons to 2.5 million metric tons by 2030.

 What makes Standard Lithium’s efforts in this space especially notable is its insistence on a “green” lithium extraction. A year after the ribbon-cutting, Standard Lithium CEO Robert Mintak told the New York Times: “This green aspect is incredibly important. … The Fred Flintstone approach [to mining] is not the solution to the lithium challenge.”

Compared to operations like Nevada’s Thacker Pass — a deeply polarizing lithium mine that falls squarely in the “Flintstone” camp with its open-pit mining and reliance on sulfuric acid — Standard Lithium’s tidy crystallization process is a scalpel. 

Even though the technology itself is very green, the process the company uses to extract lithium relies on existing industrial infrastructure from the bromine industry — specifically, de-brominated brine, better known as tail brine, which Standard Lithium sources on-site from its partner, global chemical firm Lanxess. 

Arkansans might be more familiar with Lanxess’s original name, Great Lakes Chemical, once dubbed the “number-one polluter”  in Arkansas” by a corporate watchdog. Great Lakes has continued to have a fraught relationship with the environment. Because Standard Lithium is using existing infrastructure to extract tail brine under Lanxess’s state permits, it hasn’t needed to submit rigorous environmental impact studies on its process. Even after Standard Lithium expands operations outside the Lanxess fence, it will face minimal environmental scrutiny, especially when compared to projects like those in Nevada. 

Site of the Lanxess South Plant and Standard Lithium on 324 Southfield Cutoff in El Dorado. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate 02/28/2023)
Site of the Lanxess South Plant and Standard Lithium on Southfield Cutoff in El Dorado. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate 02/28/2023)

Worth its salt

To understand lithium in Arkansas, one has to first understand brine, essentially salt-saturated water, and the bromine industry that has grown around it since the mid-20th century. Brine was long a nuisance for oil producers — when drilling for oil, Arkansas workers would tap into the saltwater aquifer, sending a geyser of scalding 220 degree water and oil to the surface, but those attitudes changed virtually overnight in 1955. That year, as the Arkansas Geological Survey notes, chemists with the Arkansas Geological Commission, “discovered that the Smackover brines had high bromine content — 4,000 to 4,600 parts per million, or about seventy times greater than that of modern ocean water,” a concentration higher than anywhere known to exist in the Western Hemisphere. 

Almost immediately after, the nascent bromine industry began to take shape. In 1957, Michigan Chemical Corporation (later known as Great Lakes Chemical Corporation) and Murphy Oil constructed the first of three bromine plants in El Dorado. Capable of producing 3 million pounds of bromine per year, the South Plant presented a success story that would, over the course of decades, make brine a far more desirable commodity than oil. Even as Arkansas oil and gas production declined from the mid-1980s through the early 2000s owing to dwindling petroleum reserves within the Smackover Formation, brine production continued unabated.

Bromine, or its chemical derivatives, is a key ingredient in many modern products, from plastics to flame retardants to pharmaceuticals. It is toxic in large quantities.

In 2000, the Wall Street Journal featured the south Arkansas industry, marveling that oil was a “nuisance” and that “there’s a saying here when drillers strike oil: ‘Darn.’” At the time, the Journal noted, bromine was an $800 million industry. That year, according to the Arkansas Oil & Gas Commission, the state produced 321 million barrels of brine.

Nowadays, the bromine industry is valued at closer to $3.3 billion. Together, Lanxess (née Great Lakes Chemical Corporation) and Albemarle (née Ethyl Corporation, which partnered with Great Lakes Chemical in 1969 to set up a bromine operation in nearby Magnolia) account for roughly a third of global bromine production.

What’s in a name

Although Great Lakes Chemical is listed as a subsidiary of Lanxess, it is seldom mentioned in materials related to Standard Lithium’s work in Arkansas. This omission is notable, in large part owing to the places where Great Lakes Chemical does appear:

  • A Propublica report released in 2021, “The Most Detailed Map of Cancer-Causing Industrial Air Pollution in the U.S.” noted that emissions from Great Lakes Chemical’s Arkansas Central Plant were “12 times the EPA’s acceptable risk” (and the leading offender in the state). “Lanxess” does not appear in this report.
  • A search for “Lanxess” on the ADEQ’s list of “complaints and inspections” yields nine results but 284 for “Great Lakes Chemical.” Many of these entries predate Great Lake Chemical’s position as a Lanxess subsidiary, but 164 come after July 2005 (when Great Lakes merged with Crompton Corporation to form Chemtura Corporation) and 38 entries occur after April 2017 (when Lanxess acquired Chemtura).
  • Until recently, EPA’s ECHO (Enforcement and Compliance History Online) list of El Dorado facilities made no mention of Lanxess. A recent review of those records found that the South and Central plants are now labeled Lanxess. The West plant is still listed as Great Lakes Chemical. All three are listed as having significant violations. The Central and West plants show 12 quarters of noncompliance in a three-year period. The South plant has 10.


For as long as the oil and bromine industries have fueled the local economy and beyond, there have been environmental issues, particularly with brine spills. In a 2001 article for the Arkansas Historical Quarterly, “A Changing Landscape: Environmental Conditions and Consequences of the 1920s Union County Oil Booms,” J. Scott Parker took an in-depth look at the environmental impact of such spills — an industry that went largely unregulated until well past the mid-20th century. 

As the production and subsequent release of salt water continued unchecked throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, whole sections of earth were laid sterile as salt accumulations increased. Healthy forest or farmland was replaced by eerily devastated terrain littered with scorched tree trunks and patches of hardened oil. Trees spared by earlier fires rotted and underbrush withered away to nothing. By the late 1930s, notable scars existed on the countryside. Charles Hoke was hired by Lion Oil as a geologist in 1937. He caught a train in Illinois and fell asleep on the trip, only to wake up while riding through the Smackover field on his way to El Dorado. “I wondered where I had come to,” he said, “it looked like a moonscape.” Once salt water reached the creek, it combined with oil and devastated the quality of the water as well as the marine life that depended upon it.

In 1958, not long after chemists with the Arkansas Geological Commission took note of the brine content of the Smackover formation, the newly formed Arkansas Water Pollution Commission reported that oil and gas wells were discharging 19.8 million gallons of saltwater, some 6,250 tons, each day into the Lower Ouachita River. The result, the Commission noted, was that those waters were rendered “unfit for most domestic, commercial, industrial, and recreational uses, including use for drinking water, irrigation, stock water, and other agricultural uses.” 

Although a slate of regulations was subsequently put into place, they still came up short, in no small part because the department had just one inspector tasked with inspecting 7,300 wells. Eventually, in early 1993, following a lengthy back and forth with the oil and gas industry, additional regulations were adopted to close existing brine disposal pits located within the 100-year floodplain. 

Even with rules in place to monitor discharge into streams, spills continued to occur — Great Lakes Chemical, for example, was fined $190,000 for water pollution in Arkansas in 1994 — and have continued to be a major concern even in recent years. ​​An Associated Press investigation in 2015, for example, found that “analysis of data from leading oil- and gas-producing states found more than 175 million gallons of wastewater spilled from 2009 to 2014 in incidents involving ruptured pipes, overflowing storage tanks and even deliberate dumping. There were some 21,651 individual spills.”

Although the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality “does not maintain a list specific to brine spills,” documents available on the department’s website indicate that Great Lakes has continued to face challenges in avoiding spills. According to a consent administrative order, for example, the company reported “22 tail brine and feed brine spills that occurred in the operation” in a year-long span between Feb. 17, 2006, and Feb. 18, 2007. The result of those spills was a total of 7,385 barrels, or 310,170 gallons, of brine spilled. For those spills, Great Lakes was fined $55,700. None of the 22 spills appear when the user searches for “brine spills” on the ADEQ website.

Standard Lithium is currently working within the fence at Lanxess’s South plant, where it expects to produce 20,900 tons of battery grade lithium carbonate a year once it completes its demonstration plant and first three phases. When it comes time to expand beyond the fence with a stand-alone production facility, the environmental concerns may matter more.

Downtown El Dorado, Arkansas. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate 02/28/2023)

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Jordan P. Hickey
Jordan P. Hickey

Jordan P. Hickey is an award-winning, trilingual writer and editor currently residing in Springdale, Arkansas. From 2013 to 2020, he worked for Arkansas Life, the statewide magazine of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, where he was named Writer/Journalist of the Year by the Great Plains Journalism Awards (2020); International Regional Magazine Association (2018); and Arkansas Society of Professional Journalists (2016). In 2016, he received the Emerging Writer Award from the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference. This past year, he was a field producer on “The Growing Season,” a year-long podcast from Arkansas PBS that explored the intersection of agriculture and mental health. Read more on his website: