Nevada lithium mine breaks ground despite Indigenous opposition

Activists say the project threatens delicate ecosystems, while proponents say it is key to Biden’s green energy agenda.

Mountains are reflected in a brine evaporation pond
This file photo shows a lithium facility in Silver Peak, southwest Nevada, US [File: John Locher/AP Photo]

Los Angeles, California, the US – Construction is under way at the Thacker Pass lithium mine in northern Nevada after a federal court denied opponents’ requests for an injunction.

Lithium Americas, a mining company headquartered in Vancouver, Canada, said in a news release this month that workers were drilling at the site and building infrastructure, including water pipelines.

General Motors, which wants United States lithium for electric vehicle batteries, announced earlier this year that it would invest $650m in Lithium Americas if the mine cleared legal and regulatory hurdles.

Gary McKinney of the local Shoshone-Paiute Indigenous tribe said he was disappointed to learn that mine construction had already started.

“There was not any justice for the environment,” McKinney told Al Jazeera, noting that mineral extraction for the energy transition was an “absurd” prospect that would destroy ecosystems rather than preserve them for future generations.

“It’s not logical,” he said. “It’s going to leave contamination behind; the only question is how much.”

McKinney is part of an Indigenous group called People of Red Mountain that is resisting the mine at Thacker Pass. They call the crescent moon-shaped pass Peehee Mu’huh, which means “rotten moon”, in reference to the 19th-century massacre of Indigenous people in the area.

Thacker Pass, the largest-known lithium deposit in the US, is a key piece of the plan by the administration of President Joe Biden to secure domestic minerals to manufacture batteries for electric vehicles. As the world’s second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases after China, the US must transition away from fossil fuels to address global warming.

Joe Biden speaking at electric vehicle factory
US President Joe Biden has made the transition to electric vehicles a key part of his plan to combat the climate crisis [File: Evan Vucci/AP Photo]

But the mine has faced court challenges from tribes, ranchers and conservation groups who say it could destroy delicate ecosystems and desecrate a site where at least 31 Paiute people were allegedly killed by soldiers in 1865.

A federal court in 2021 ruled that there was insufficient evidence to demonstrate the massacre had taken place “within the project area”, but tribes maintain it is sacred ground.

“There’s burial sites there. There’s medicines and roots there, there’s ecosystems – there is still life back there,” said McKinney, who is a descendant of a massacre survivor. “And it’s all being sacrificed supposedly to fix the climate crisis.”

Legal battle

Ever since the Thacker Pass mine was approved in the final days of former President Donald Trump’s administration, opponents have been fighting to stop it. Last month, a judge ruled mostly in favour of the mining company, clearing the way for construction. Opponents sought an emergency injunction while they appealed the decision, but that request was rejected.

Talasi Brooks, an attorney for the Western Watersheds Project, one of the groups that filed the motion for an injunction, told Al Jazeera the decision had left her organisation “devastated”.

She said construction would destroy wildlife habitat, including for the sage-grouse, a plump bird with a fanned tail that faces population decline. The timing couldn’t be worse, she added, as construction would strip away vegetation that provides a major food source for antelope, deer and sage-grouse “just as spring starts, when that habitat is the most important to wildlife”.

According to a federal environmental assessment, the Thacker Pass mining operation could also deplete groundwater, even as drought continues in Nevada.

In court filings, a lawyer for Lithium Americas said the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) had required the company to take action to preserve sage-grouse habitat elsewhere in the state, “resulting in a net conservation gain”.

The firm’s lawyers said legal delays were thwarting the ability of the US to combat climate change and to reduce its dependence on lithium from China, noting: “The Project will produce lithium that will aid the country’s war on climate change, positively impact the global environment, and further our country’s energy usage, national security, and the economy within the community around the mine and in the State of Nevada.” The mine will create hundreds of jobs, the firm said.

Lawyers representing the BLM also argued in court filings that allowing construction was in the public interest: “The lithium from this mine is a critical component of electric vehicle batteries, and thus an important domestic resource for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

The BLM and Lithium Americas declined Al Jazeera’s requests for comment.

Antiquated mining law

Thacker Pass is just one of many similar mining projects across the US that could affect Indigenous communities, with nearly 80 percent of lithium resources in the country located within 56km (35 miles) of Native American reservations.

Legal flashpoints have been erupting across the US amid a new iteration of the gold rush, said Aaron Mintzes, senior policy counsel for the advocacy group Earthworks. “We are seeing them all over the country right now because we find ourselves on the precipice of our 21st-century minerals rush,” he told Al Jazeera.

Present-day mining law in the US has its roots in the violent colonisation of the west, Mintzes said, when the Americans used war, genocide and treaties to settle the region. Under the General Mining Act of 1872, which remains in force today, those aiming to mine land that is “open to mineral entry” are required only to place four stakes in the ground, report the claim to the BLM, prove they found valuable minerals, and pay a fee – “then you get the right to mine”, Mintzes said.

For other land uses in the US, such as pipelines or solar farms, the government has some discretion. But it has little discretion to deny a mine, because under the 1872 law, “if you do discover valuable minerals, that land becomes yours”, Mintzes said.

While the government is obligated to consult tribes, he added, this “is not a consent-driven process. It is a check-the-box process”.

The Biden administration is currently considering reforms to the 150-year-old mining law, citing a need to create “a modern legal framework for the socially and environmentally responsible and sustainable mining and production” of minerals needed to grow the clean-energy economy.

Mintzes said he believes the US needs to update its “systemically racist” mining regulations, while also building a circular economy to recycle minerals for batteries and reduce demand for new mining.

Meanwhile, the Western Watersheds Project is continuing to pursue an appeal in an effort to stop the Thacker Pass project, with arguments scheduled for June.

“We’re hoping that they’ll rule relatively soon, because the company will not have finished destroying all of that area yet,” Brooks said. “So there’s still a chance to stop some of the destruction.”

Source: Al Jazeera