In northern Nevada, snow still covers much of the McDermitt Caldera, an area of rolling sagebrush hills, dramatic outcrops, and open river valleys. This corner of Nevada is precious for many reasons: Greater sage-grouse dance in its sagebrush. Golden eagles fly above. The Lahontan cutthroat trout and an endemic snail called the King’s River pyrg — both at risk of extinction — depend on the area’s declining springs. The Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe lives here, as does the small farming community of Orovada. Pronghorn migrate through corridors between hay farms and cattle plots.
This caldera — defined as a large volcanic crater — is also precious to the Vancouver-based multinational mining company Lithium Americas. On public land at Thacker Pass, company surveyors found the largest known lithium deposit in the country. In January, the US Bureau of Land Management gave the company its approval to mine it — a decision that has sparked local concerns and a series of lawsuits in recent weeks.
Lithium is a silvery-white metal typically obtained from brine pools in saline regions in Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia. In recent decades, the light metal has become an essential component in the batteries for smartphones, electric vehicles, and renewable energy storage. An increasing demand for Teslas and iPhones — and a growing renewable energy sector — has therefore sparked a rush on lithium. Some call the metal “white gold.”
At Thacker Pass, lithium is stored in the caldera’s volcanic clay. Lithium Americas (operating through its subsidiary Lithium Nevada) plans to dig a two-square-mile open pit and use a new process of lithium extraction that uses sulfuric acid to separate the lithium from the clay. Operation is expected to begin as early as this year — and will continue 24 hours a day for the next four decades.
Last week, a group of Nevada-based conservation groups sued the BLM’s approval of the Thacker Pass mine. There are many potential environmental impacts, from habitat fragmentation, to increased truck traffic and water usage, to antimony pollution, but the primary concern expressed by the filed complaint is that the environmental review process was rushed without the consent of the communities affected.
John Hadder, director of Great Basin Resource Watch, one of the groups that filed the complaint, says the streamlined environmental review can be attributed in part to the Trump administration’s rollback of the National Environmental Policy Act — a bedrock environmental law that Trump called the “single biggest obstacle” to major construction projects.
Plus, the review and public comment period fell within the pandemic, and most public meetings between company representatives, the BLM, and community members were held virtually — which lent to lapses in communication. Billy A. Bell, one of the tribal councilmembers at the Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation, told High Country News that he didn’t hear about the mine’s approval until reporters reached out to him for comment. “It’s interesting how the tribe didn’t comment” during the mine’s public comment period, Bell said. “And it’s too late now.”
Despite the switch in presidential administrations, plans for the Thacker Pass lithium mine seem to be continuing unabated. While President Biden has signed a series of executive orders aimed to halt public lands extraction, last week he signed an order emphasizing the need for the domestic mining of “critical minerals” like lithium.
Of course, this order is motivated by the Biden administration’s commitment to a green energy transition. According to 2018 data from the Environmental Protection Agency, the transportation sector accounts for more than a quarter of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. Electric vehicles are an obvious antidote — one that car manufactures like General Motors and Jaguar have fully embraced.
In February, rancher Edward Bartell sued the BLM for underestimating the potential impacts of the Thacker Pass lithium mine. “This has been promoted as a green project, but I feel it’s anything but green,” he says.
But conservationists and Thacker Pass locals are concerned with how this transition is playing out on the ground. “The way this mine was permitted sets a very bad precedent for our energy transition,” Hadder says. “We want to see a just transition, but this is a bad example.”
Edward Bartell, a rancher who owns private land in Quinn River Valley nearby Thacker Pass, agrees. “This has been promoted as a green project, but I feel it’s anything but green,” he says.
Bartell opposes the mine for many reasons. He claims that Lithium Americas has not been upfront about the mine’s carbon footprint (2.3 tons of carbon emissions for every ton of lithium produced), its potentially odorous use of sulfuric acid, its impact on wildlife and groundwater, and so on. In early February, Bartell sued the BLM over the mine’s approval, claiming that the project’s consultants relied on industry science to underestimate impacts on the area’s water resources. According to the environmental impact statement, the mine will pump 1.7 billion gallons of water annually in an area where water is already over-allocated. Bartell, like others in the area, is concerned that a water table drop will turn his cattle pastures of Great Basin wild rye into “a barren desert.”
But even a more thorough review process wouldn’t have quelled much of the mine’s opposition from environmentalists. In January, the day the BLM approved the mine, environmentalists Max Wilbert and Will Falk drove to Thacker Pass and pitched a tent in the snow at the proposed open-pit site. They unfurled banners saying “Protect Thacker Pass” and “Anti-Mine Protest,” created a website, and started writing op-eds and open letters to the BLM. Six weeks after arriving, Wilbert, Falk, and a shuffling roster of protesters remain at Thacker Pass, claiming that they will stand between this vital ecosystem and developers whenever Lithium Americas’ employees show up at the site.
“The sagebrush doesn’t have the option to pick up its roots and move out of the way [of this mine]. The wildlife doesn’t have that option. The water doesn’t have that option,” says Wilbert. “It’s not controversial to say, Let’s not poison water. Let’s not blow up a mountain and call it green.”
Despite the negative impacts of extraction, there’s still a question of how the Thacker Pass lithium mine might economically benefit the region. Lithium Americas claims that the mine will quadruple the region’s average salary, but it’s still unclear how evenly the job opportunities will be distributed. (The environmental impact statement mentions a shuttle bus service between the mine site and the town of Winnemucca, a predominately White town of nearly 8,000 people 60 miles south, but similar commitments to the Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation have been left vague.)
But what’s clear is that the lithium mine at Thacker Pass will deeply change the area. “The [minerals] that we use come from particular places, and it’s the people from those places that have to shoulder the impacts of mining for everybody else,” Hadder says. “It’s time that those communities get more of a voice in this process.”
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