In South Dakota’s Black Hills, A Lithium Boom Promises More of the Same from Mining Industry

Local groups point to disproportionate impact on Indigenous communities in a region with a long history of extraction.

South Dakota’s Black Hills are no stranger to mining. The hills — sacred land to the Lakota — have long been exploited for gold and uranium deposits, the lands scarred and rivers polluted in the process. The area is a relatively small (60 by 100 mile) island of lush trees and rolling hills amid a vast expanse of grasslands, but one in every five acres has an active mining claim. Now, mining companies are eyeing the region for another resource: lithium.

black hills in south dakota

A number of lithium companies are currently undertaking exploratory activities in South Dakota’s Black Hills, which are sacred to the Lakota. Photo of the Black Hills by Chad Davis.

In the last decade, global lithium production has quadrupled, predominately coming from two places. The first is a region in Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina known as the “Lithium Triangle.” Lithium sourced from this region is found in salt flats and extracted from pools of salty brine through an evaporation process. The second is Western Australia, where the mineral is mined from bedrock in places like Western Australia and Zimbabwe. Mining companies are preparing for similar endeavors in the United States in Nevada, South Dakota, North Carolina, and more.

Welcome to the “white gold rush” to procure lithium, a vital element used to produce the batteries that power the electric cars, solar cells, and other technologies of the green energy transition. This rush is in its initial stages, but already the same actors who capitalized on past oil and mineral rushes are positioned to continue business as usual. This time, climate change is being exploited to justify the same harmful extractive practices.

In recent years, a new “Green Colonialism” has underpinned a series of Biden administration actions to spur domestic mining operations. In 2021, Biden issued an executive order under the Defense Production Act ordering the Defense Department to consider at least five metals — lithium, cobalt, graphite, nickel and manganese — as essential to national security.

That order, along with incentives built into the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, have spurred a boom on domestic lithium and rare earth element claims. These projects disproportionately impact Indigenous communities, since most lithium, cobalt, and nickel reserves are located within 35 miles of a Native American reservation.

Such harm to Indigenous communities in the name of extraction is not new. Taylor Gunhammer, member of the Oglala subtribe of the Lakota people, sits on the board of the Black Hills Clean Water Alliance (BHCWA), a local organization that has been fighting to reign in mining in the region for more than a decade. In a recent blog post, he traced the historical connections between mining interests and the colonization and genocide of Indigenous people:

“Mining was the catalyst for the military violence and land grabs that have forced us and the land to our present condition, wherein the United States and the State of South Dakota carry out willful violations of Constitutional and Tribal treaty rights every single day. Granted, there are now various non-mining business interests in the Black Hills who are against the honoring of treaties with tribes, for their own economic reasons. But each and every one of them have illegal mining on treaty land to thank for the opportunity, since 1872.”

Although a variety of resources have been mined in the Black Hills region, the biggest conflicts have concerned gold and uranium. The dangers posed by uranium provided the catalyst for the Black Hills Alliance (BHA) to form in the 1970s, when the interests of non-native settlers aligned with Indigenous peoples in the region over a desire for uranium-free drinking water. During the 1970s, the threat of twenty-seven corporations exploring more than 5,000 claims in the Black Hills was high enough to begin opening doors to conversations. Through grassroots efforts initiated by the Lakota, a coalition eventually converged between the Lakota, environmentalists, other Black Hills residents, and off-reservation ranchers and farmers. (Zoltán Grossman provides a history of these movements in his book Unlikely Alliances).

The Alliance wasn’t without tension. As BHA co-founder Bruce Ellison recalled, “[The BHA] was looked at in the Indian community as a white organization and in the white community as an Indian organization. We looked at it as both.” Eventually, as Gunhammer wrote in his blog, settlers “came to recognize that their survival is tied irrevocably to the people who have always held the lands they occupy as sacred.”

These types of alliances have helped bolster efforts to oppose harmful mining operations and pipelines such as Keystone XL, and some of the same people who founded the BHA would later found the Black Hills Clean Water Alliance in 2009, focusing more specifically on mining issues. Still, these groups have not absolved historical injustices or alleviated all of the tensions between settler and Indigenous communities.

The Black Hills are unceded territory, meaning that the Sioux Nation Tribes never gave up their ownership to the US government. Restoring their rights to the land is so important to the tribes that, despite a poverty rate of roughly 49 percent, the Sioux refuse to accept the $1.3 billion currently sitting in trust, awarded when federal courts ruled that the land had been stolen in the 1870s. Still, mining companies remain poised to reap the bounty of lithium claims there in blatant disregard to Indigenous sovereignty. The BHCWA has been monitoring these developments, tracking projects, operators, and claims, which are present across the Hills. They have identified nine lithium operators in the region, including Patriot Lithium, Midwest Lithium/SDO, United Lithium, and IRIS Metals, currently undertaking exploratory work. The companies emphasize the need for clean energy while downplaying the environmental impacts of mining operations.

“I can see if you were in the middle of Mount Rushmore, maybe that’s not a good place to have a mine of any kind, lithium or gold,” Michael Dehn, the CEO of United Lithium Corp., said in an interview with Black Hills Fox News. “But if you’re out in the fringes, you know, ranch land, as long as you are not competing with the ranchers for resources, I think we can work well together, side by side.” It’s worth lingering on Dehn’s referral to Mount Rushmore — a not-so-subtle tell of whose culture Dehn considers worthy of preservation and protection. (Incidentally, there are now lithium claims up to within a quarter-mile of the border of the Mount Rushmore National Memorial, and a state drilling permit that’s no more than 2 miles away).

“Mining companies don’t care about the impact so much as they care about making a profit,” Dr. Lilias Jarding, BHCWA’s executive director, said in the same segment, “and they come into places all over the world and mine and destroy communities and the environment and water. So, we don’t expect lithium companies to be any different in that way.” This lack of trust is justified. The environmental group Earthworks found that 76 percent of mining companies in the US polluted groundwater after saying they wouldn’t.

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In the Hills, lithium will be sourced from a hard silicate material in pegmatite rocks called spodumene. To mine this material, large open pits and underground deposits are excavated with drills and explosives, scarring the landscape. Producing a single ton of lithium consumes significant amounts of energy, a slurry of harmful chemicals, and, on average, twenty-four tons of water. Through all of this, the land and water suffer the impacts of clear-cutting, chemical and mineral runoff, and the creation of huge amounts of waste. Meanwhile, air quality declines from dust plumes and emissions from heavy machinery and shipping.

The cheaper evaporation method used to extract lithium from salt flats is more promising, but still poses its own threats. In Argentina’s Atacama Desert, international corporations have reaped massive rewards from these methods while the region’s Indigenous communities have been left with limited access to safe drinking water or irrigation for their land. These same issues can be seen here in the US, in Clayton Valley, Nevada. The Silver Peak mine, which uses this method, produces enough lithium carbonate to power about 80,000 electric vehicles. But to do so, 12,000 acre-feet of water (roughly equivalent to the water usage of about 24,000 homes) must be pumped from underground aquifers annually. Such operations can strain watersheds in regions struggling with prolonged droughts and dwindling groundwater. What’s more, it’s possible for harmful chemicals contained within the evaporation pools to leach into local water supplies. With more than 100 companies staking claims for lithium deposits in the west, and a political environment eager to greenlight such projects, the risk for unforeseen environmental impacts is significant.

Jarding believes that the emphasis on electric vehicles to facilitate the transition away from fossil fuels, while important, shifts the environmental burden from cities where these electric vehicles will replace polluting combustion engines to rural communities where the necessary resources will be mined. These rural communities are also the least likely to be able to transition to electric vehicles because of long commutes and a lack of basic infrastructure, such as charging stations, to reliably power and maintain them. The rush to secure lithium also reinforces the historical exploitation of Indigenous lands, without addressing the root issue: US over-consumption. Mining, she points out, is a notable contributor to carbon emissions worldwide. Her research has found that resource extraction emits anywhere from 10 to 36 percent of global emissions.

Still, the argument here is not to halt the green transition or ban electric cars and the batteries that power them, but to eliminate a mind-set that perceives Earth as an inexhaustible resource — a mindset that has for too long looked at the people affected by these practices as little more than collateral damage. Any climate initiative that trades one ecological catastrophe for another is just bad policy.

Around the country, numerous policies have been proposed or enacted to address the issues not only of the white gold rush, but of chronic problems within the mining industry. Several towns in Maine have passed bans on industrial mining. And the state’s 2017 Metallic Mineral Mining Act requires a hefty mining application processing fee of $500,000. Meanwhile, the recently proposed Clean Energy Minerals Reform Act of 2023, introduced by US Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM) and US Representative Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) last May, would amend the 1872 mining law to require more tribal consultation and change how mining is approved on federal lands. In the Black Hills and other regions, where lithium currently has the same legal categorization as sand and gravel, a recategorization would help slow the approval process, or simply make such claims more lucrative to local governments. Right now, starting a lithium mine on privately-controlled lands in the Black Hills only requires filling out a one-page form, filing a small bond and stormwater plan, and paying a $100 annual fee. Mining operations do not have to pay a severance tax on lithium either. Recategorization would strengthen environmental regulation.

The white gold rush is certain to continue pitting industrial and political interests against the health and rights of people and the environment. But the urgency of the climate crisis does not justify harmful policies — nor are such policies necessary. Sincere efforts are underway to increase the efficiency of lithium batteries, and to improve methods of recycling existing batteries, which could further stretch current supplies. But these approaches would only slow the rush while ignoring the problems at its core. Innovative thinking, such as more environmentally sustainable batteries, and an emphasis on increasing efficiency while reducing consumption, can help bring about a green transition without exacerbating injustices and inequalities. Policymakers must understand that unlimited private vehicle use is ultimately incompatible with our planet’s finite resources. A rapid transition away from fossil fuels may require the production of electric vehicles, but if “do no harm” is not a first-principle of that transition, then it will be destined to fail.

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