‘Lithium Valley’: Inside California’s ‘white gold’ rush

Salton Sea lithium: aerial view

The Salton Sea holds enough lithium to power more than 375 million electric vehicle batteries. (Photo/iStock)


‘Lithium Valley’: Inside California’s ‘white gold’ rush

The race to mine American lithium at the Salton Sea is intensifying, but USC experts caution against potential environmental health impacts in a region already burdened by poverty and air pollution.

December 07, 2023

By Nina Raffio

The Imperial Valley in southeastern California is emerging as a global hotspot for lithium: A new U.S. Department of Energy report confirms that the Salton Sea holds enough of the rare mineral to power over 375 million electric vehicle batteries — more than the total number of vehicles on U.S. roads.

That’s good news for the global shift toward clean energy and American ambitions of energy independence. However, USC experts warn that the race to mine American lithium could come with significant environmental and public health impacts.

“‘Lithium Valley’ is now poised for a potential economic boom — one promoted not just by companies but by environmentalists who believe that the method of lithium extraction being proposed there is the ‘greenest’ approach available,” said Manuel Pastor, director of the USC Equity Research Institute. “But the question is, who will benefit from the boom and who will face continued marginalization?”

California enters the global race to mine ‘white gold’

Lithium — “white gold” — is produced from hard rock or extracted from natural geothermal brines, sourced from salt lakes like the Salton Sea. Australia is the world’s biggest supplier, with production from hard rock mines, while Argentina, Chile and China lead in lithium production from salt lakes, according to the World Economic Forum.

Salton Sea lithium: Geothermal brine lithium recovery
Geothermal brine lithium recovery extracts battery-grade lithium from natural geothermal brines found in hot springs and salt lakes such as the Salton Sea. (Photo/Courtesy of the California governor’s office)

In recent years, both the pandemic and geopolitical tensions have highlighted the risks of relying on foreign sources for critical materials like lithium, nickel and cobalt that power the batteries in our EVs and devices. The World Bank anticipates a 500% spike in demand for lithium by 2050.

“To enable sustainable future production from local resources, the U.S. needs to reduce the amount of lithium used in batteries and seek alternative local sources of lithium,” said Greys Sošić, an expert in sustainability and global supply chains at the USC Marshall School of Business. She points to geothermal brine lithium recovery — a process that extracts battery-grade lithium from natural geothermal brines found in hot springs and salt lakes such as the Salton Sea — as a viable alternative.

Shrinking Salton Sea, air pollution crises raise public health concerns

Originally formed in 1905 as a result of an engineering mishap and spanning 350 square miles, the Salton Sea is now shrinking. Its exposed seabeds are releasing dust that poses a threat to health, especially in children, in a community already beset by environmental and economic challenges, experts say.

Salton Sea lithium: exposed seabeds
The Salton Sea’s exposed seabeds are releasing dust that poses a threat to health, especially in children. (Photo/Joe Abbruscato)

“This is one of the poorest counties in California, with a median household income roughly one-third of that in Silicon Valley … and it has a population which is 85% Latino but with political representation falling far short of that standard,” said Pastor.

The childhood asthma rate for the communities around the sea is 22% compared to the national average of roughly 8%, according to Shohreh Farzan, an associate professor of population and public health at the Keck School of Medicine of USC who has been collecting samples of air particles at elementary schools around the Salton Sea since 2017.

“Many children in this area are affected by respiratory symptoms, such as wheezing and allergies, and the local air quality is a likely contributor to the high rates we see,” Farzan said. “The trade-off with lithium is that while it can reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, there is much that remains to be understood about the environmental impacts of the extraction process and whether this energy transition could impact the health of the surrounding communities.”

Jill Johnston, an associate professor in the division of environmental health at USC, adds that “while efforts to move away from fossil fuels and promote zero-emissions technology is important for public health, it is critical to avoid creating new environmental hazards. The overly burdened families near the proposed lithium extraction site deserve to have clean air and water and protection of their health.”

Eco Film & Media Arts Festival, Urban Trees Initiative receive national sustainability accolades

USC sustainability: Students and faculty work on Urban Trees Initiative

USC students and faculty members work together on the Urban Trees Initiative. (USC Photo/Gus Ruelas)


Eco Film & Media Arts Festival, Urban Trees Initiative receive national sustainability accolades

USC programs are recognized for student engagement and racial equity from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.

December 07, 2023

By Paul McQuiston

A student-led film festival and a USC tree research initiative received national recognition from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), one of the leading organizations promoting sustainability in higher education.

Assignment: Earth logo
Learn more about the university’s sustainability efforts.

The 2022 Eco Film & Media Arts Festival won the Student Sustainability Leadership Award, while the USC Urban Trees Initiative earned the Racial Equity and Sustainability Collaborations Award as part of the 2023 AASHE Sustainability Awards. The two programs beat out finalists from Yale University, Tufts University, Boston University and others.

USC Chief Sustainability Officer Mick Dalrymple said the recognition for both programs was well-deserved and reflects the continuing importance of sustainability at the university.

“AASHE is the recognized leader for promoting sustainability in higher education, so receiving these awards is a real honor for USC,” Dalrymple said. “The student-led Eco Film & Media Arts Festival is especially gratifying as it shows how deeply engaged our student body is in addressing and identifying solutions to climate change. And of course, the USC Urban Trees Initiative is a wonderful model for how public partnerships can apply research breakthroughs in climate solutions to the people and communities that stand to benefit most.”

The two programs were recognized during the virtual AASHE Sustainability Awards Ceremony on Thursday. The winners receive a plaque from Rivanna Natural Designs, a woman-owned company committed to sustainability.

Using film and media arts to tell urgent, hopeful climate stories

More than 100 people attended the first-ever Eco Film & Media Arts Festival, which featured 11 student-produced short projects at the USC School of Cinematic Arts in November 2022.

Prior to screening the student-made work, the festival’s lead student organizer, Natasha Nutkiewicz, moderated a panel discussion featuring screenwriter and producer Courtnee Zambrano, who worked on Apple TV+’s climate-focused show Extrapolations, and grassroots political organizer Jay Ponti.

USC sustainability: Natasha Nutkiewicz and Jay Ponti
The Eco Film & Media Arts Festival’s lead organizer, Natasha Nutkiewicz, talks with political organizer Jay Ponti at the 2022 event. (Photo/Charles McCollum Photography)

Nutkiewicz, who graduated in May with a degree in theater from the USC School of Dramatic Arts and is currently developing various projects in Spain, said she is still working with the panelists from the festival on climate-related ideas. The impact of the festival is still reverberating, she said.

“It’s a great feeling when you do something out of pure love of community and arts, and it is recognized at this level,” Nutkiewicz said. “I’m inspired to keep working and hopefully organize another festival in the new year. As this is going on, we are getting close to surpassing the 2 degree centigrade warming limit, so now is the time to use media to tell hopeful, entertaining, educational and innovative climate stories.”

The Eco Film & Media Arts Festival was supported by the USC Arts & Climate Collective and the School of Cinematic Arts’ division of Media Arts + Practice. The festival was made up of a mixture of short-form documentaries, fictional films and a speculative design project. Each emphasized the festival’s prompt: “We must act now.” A second student-led festival is being planned for March.

Growing an urban tree canopy for vulnerable communities

Launched in 2020, the USC Urban Trees Initiative (USC Trees) is working with the city of Los Angeles to guide the planting of new trees in areas of greatest need. Coordinated by Public Exchange, a program based at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, USC faculty, staff and students are creating science- and community-based tools to support tree planting efforts in L.A. neighborhoods that have less shade, higher pollution exposure and more vulnerable residents including Boyle Heights, City Terrace, El Sereno, Lincoln Heights, Ramona Gardens and University Park. These neighborhoods are predominantly lower-income communities of color that have suffered from historic disinvestment in urban greening.

Monica Dean, climate and sustainability practice director for USC Dornsife Public Exchange, spoke of the importance of centering equity and racial justice in building climate resistance and how the work of USC Trees aims to be an example of this in action.

“We know the climate crisis is having disproportionate impacts on historically marginalized and underserved communities. In Los Angeles, low-income communities of color at the highest risk of heat exposure also live in the most tree-poor areas of the city,” Dean said. “We created the USC Urban Trees Initiative to support city officials, urban foresters, community members and other practitioners by equipping them with the data and tools they need to prioritize tree plantings in the most equitable and sustainable manner. We know it’s not just how many trees are planted, but where they are planted that matters.”

Artificial intelligence could reduce racial bias in homeless services, USC scientists say

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Artificial intelligence could reduce racial bias in homeless services, USC scientists say

December 05, 2023

USC and UCLA scientists collaborated on a research project for L.A. homeless service officials to address issues with racial bias within the triage tools that guide housing placement. The use of A.I. could help more people exit homelessness.

Contact: Emily Gersema at gersema@usc.edu, Amy Blumenthal at amyblume@usc.edu or Joanna Scott at joannas@usc.edu

USC researchers have developed an artificial intelligence tool they recommend as one of several measures that would help homeless service agencies control for potential biases and ensure that applicants have a fair chance at getting housing.

The USC Center for Artificial Intelligence in Society (CAIS) on Wednesday released a new report that details the three-year collaborative research project conducted with the California Policy Lab at UCLA and the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA). The L.A. agency had sought an analysis and recommendations to improve its triage system amid concerns that implicit racial bias was driving inequity in housing placements and other homeless services.

Black people account for 7.6% of Los Angeles County’s overall population, but they represent 31.7% of the estimated 75,000 people in the county experiencing homelessness, based on the 2023 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count. (Data analysis for the annual count is led by USC researchers.)

In the new report, “Coordinated Entry System Triage Tool Research and Refinement,” the scientists recommend that LAHSA combine social science expertise with AI to ensure fair and equitable practices in risk assessments and housing placements.

“We’ve made an important step forward for Los Angeles in addressing the really challenging social problems of racial bias and homelessness, and we’ve done it in a way that is both technologically innovative and driven by the values of the community,” said Eric Rice, a professor at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, co-director of CAIS and the project leader.

“The partnership between social work and engineering allows us to go beyond the data, to understand the human side behind it, and to create AI solutions tailored to the specific needs of the population,” said Phebe Vayanos, a USC Viterbi School of Engineering associate professor, co-director of CAIS and lead for the USC Data Science and Computerized System Design Team for the project. “Our proposed system is also more transparent, which helps build trust and improve participation.”

The CAIS team includes more than a dozen researchers from the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work and USC Viterbi. Support for the project came from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, the Home for Good Funders Collaborative and the Homeless Policy Research Institute.

CAIS is part of the USC Frontiers of Computing moonshot launched by USC President Carol Folt with these key objectives: enhance the university’s computing curriculum for students, to bolster research that accounts for ethics, and boost recruitment of top scientists and students in such areas as AI and quantum computing. The university aims to advance computer science-driven research and development with a human-centered approach.

Addressing bias through AI development
For feedback, the researchers relied on a community advisory board. The members include people who were once homeless, frontline case managers, and resource “matchers” who allocate housing.

“What we’ve been trying to do with this process is to help create less bias in the model, but also help create less bias in the way that we collect the data,” said Rice, explaining the CAIS team’s approach.

The triage tool includes an assessment to gauge the severity of clients’ needs and vulnerability. The researchers identified 19 questions that would most accurately predict future adverse events for a client and their likelihood of exiting homelessness.

The community advisory board worked with the researchers to reword these items to be sensitive to the experiences of trauma and racism common to people experiencing homelessness.

The scientists also recommended guidelines for administering the tool in ways that could reduce client stress during the intake process and increase the probability that housing representatives could capture accurate information about their vulnerability and needs.

The researchers clearly understand the crisis of homelessness, said Marina Genchev, director of systems and planning at LAHSA.

“We may be talking about huge quantities of data and where AI or prediction can come into play, but it is never a pure science exercise. It is always a human exercise using data,” she said.

Two models to inform housing decisions

The researchers developed two data systems models that can be adjusted to fulfill different needs. The California Policy Lab team developed a data prediction model linking existing administrative data from touchpoints throughout the County of Los Angeles to predict future adverse outcomes and escalate those clients’ priority for available housing resources.

For their model, the CAIS researchers aimed to address overall homelessness by improving equity across all groups to successfully exit homelessness. In testing, this model improved the fairness, efficiency, and transparency of the system all at the same time.

It gave stakeholders a way to implement their preferences in terms of what the system should be doing. At the same time, it increased the number of individuals able to successfully exit homelessness by 3%, reducing overall homelessness over time, Vayanos said.

Rice and Vayanos are developing similar models for homeless services in Missouri and Washington. Vayanos also made a Python software package for social service agencies, and she is finalizing another that allows local communities to adapt the researchers’ models to their needs.

“We have a long way to go to solve homelessness,” Rice said. “But we’re doing something to make for a more equitable, fair and community-driven process that will help to serve people experiencing homelessness — no matter who they are — in a more thoughtful and meaningful way.”

Read more about the CAIS research here.


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