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Thacker Pass. Image courtesy of Google Maps.

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Thacker Pass Lithium Mine Opposed By 4 Conservation Groups

The open pit lithium mine is expected to use billions of gallons of groundwater, potentially contaminating some of it for 300 years, while leaving behind a giant mound of waste.

With 4 conservation and public accountability groups filing for a preliminary injunction in the Federal District Court in Reno, the construction of the Thacker Pass lithium mine has taken center stage. The motion for preliminary injunction and the prior legal complaint allege that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) violated federal laws when it approved the Thacker Pass Lithium Mine’s Plans of Operation on January 15, 2021, including the National Environmental Policy Act and Federal Land Policy and Management Act.

Major mine construction on thousands of acres of public land is planned to begin in the fall.

The BLM had only begun its environmental review process during 2020, yet the mine’s fast-tracked approval came just days before the Biden administration was ready to take office. Resource studies at the mine site, which are expected to begin on or soon after June 23, 2021, are likely to disturb cultural sites. The mine site studies will include:

  • surface disturbance,
  • mechanized trench excavation, and
  • removal of wildlife habitat and vegetation.

The Fort McDermitt Paiute, Shoshone, and other tribes have not been properly consulted about the potential impacts to their sacred ground, although the Thacker Pass mine would be built on their traditional lands.

The Biden administration has not moved to promote more environmentally friendly options to extract lithium — like lithium brine extraction instead of open pit mines. Federal and state officials will decide which of the 2 methods — or both — will be approved. Much will depend on how successful environmentalists, tribes, and local groups are in blocking projects.

4 Groups File Federal Litigation Challenging the Thacker Mine Approval

Attorneys from Western Mining Action Project and Western Watersheds Project represent Western Watersheds Project, Great Basin Resource Watch, Basin and Range Watch, and Wildlands Defense in the complaint.

  • Western Watersheds Project is a nonprofit environmental conservation group dedicated to protecting and restoring wildlife and watersheds throughout the American West. “We have been very reasonable about this,” said Kelly Fuller, Energy and Mining Campaign Director for Western Watersheds Project. “We talked in good faith with the Bureau of Land Management and the mining company for several weeks, trying to negotiate an agreement that mining activities would not begin until the merits of this case could be heard by the court. But talks failed, which has left us no choice but to ask the court to step in and halt the destruction.”
  • Great Basin Resource Watch is a nonprofit public interest organization that works with communities to protect their health, land, air, water, and wildlife of the Great Basin from the adverse effects of mining and resource extraction. “People in the affected communities have been calling for assurance that Thacker Pass will be protected during litigation,” said John Hadder, Executive Director of Great Basin Resource Watch. “If we do not act now, Lithium Nevada will destroy significant cultural areas and habitat before the courts will have determined whether the mine should be allowed under law.”
  • Basin and Range Watch is a nonprofit working to conserve the deserts of Nevada and California and to educate the public about the diversity of life, culture, and history of the ecosystems and wild lands of the desert. “The Bureau of Land Management’s fast-tracked approval of the Thacker Pass Lithium Mine endangers important old-growth sagebrush and aquatic ecosystems of the Great Basin,” said Kevin Emmerich, Director of Basin and Range Watch. “New ground disturbance could impact sagebrush-dependent species like pygmy rabbit and sage-grouse and eventually enable an open-pit mine that will push endemic springsnails and Federally protected Lahontan cutthroat trout closer to extinction.”
  • Wildlands Defense works to inspire and empower the preservation of wild lands, wildlife and biodiversity in the West. “The enormity of the irreversible destruction Lithium Nevada’s giant mine would cause to the region’s wildlife, water, natural values, and cultural sites is hard to comprehend,” said Katie Fite, Director of Public Lands at Wildlands Defense. “BLM’s slipshod analysis only scratched the surface, and habitat for a great diversity of species is jeopardized. It also flies in the face of BLM promises to preserve sage-grouse, whose numbers have declined by 80%, with the Great Basin population particularly imperiled.”

The 4 groups have asked that the federal court block ground and habitat disturbance operations until the case can be fully heard on the merits. They also argue that BLM failed in its duty to protect public resources by allowing a mine that will be a source of groundwater pollution for at least 300 years and that will not require long-term financial assurances.

A Clash of Thacker Pass Mining Practices & Environmental Protections

Thacker Pass project area. Image courtesy of Lithium Americas.

Thacker Pass is critically important to wildlife because it is an important habitat linkage between the Double H Mountains to the Montana Mountains, according to the Great Basin Resource Watch. The pass also provides lower-elevation habitat that wildlife need to survive the winter. It contains thousands of acres of the most important type of greater sage-grouse habitat, designated as Priority Habitat in federal plans, and two pronghorn migration corridors. Golden eagles nesting in the nearby cliffs and canyons forage here for food to feed their chicks. Local springs are the only place in the world where the Kings River pyrg, a rare type of springsnail, are known to live.

In April, the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe formally resolved to cancel a Project Engagement Agreement with mining company Lithium Nevada, citing threats to land, water, wildlife, hunting and gathering areas, and sacred sites. The Tribal Council also agreed to initiate a lawsuit against the Bureau of Land Management for violations of federal law in permitting the Thacker Pass lithium mine project to proceed. The group cited violations of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, and other laws.

According to Lithium Nevada Corporation’s Plans of Operation, the mine would entail:

  • excavation of a large open pit roughly 2.3 miles long by about half a mile at the widest;
  • removal of up to 17.2 million tons of rock and ore per year;
  • 17,933 acres (Mine Plan boundary of 10,468 acres; Exploration Plan boundary of 7,465 acres) with an estimated total disturbance footprint of approximately 5,695 acres;
  • on-site sulfuric acid plant – up to 5,800 tons of acid per day;
  • reach a depth of about 370 feet;
  • consume 3,224 gallons per minute, ultimately pumping up to 1.7 billion gallons of water per year;
  • estimated active surface mining for 41 years; and,
  • 5 years of reclamation.

The project expects to produce 66,000 tons a year of battery-grade lithium carbonate.

 
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Written By

Carolyn Fortuna (they, them), Ph.D., is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavy Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.

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