- The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has approved an open-pit lithium ore mine in northern Nevada, despite protests by Native tribes to protect the disputed sacred site.
- Lithium is in high demand as the key component in batteries that fuel electric vehicles and cellphones, raising environmental concerns about its extraction.
- The U.S. government is ramping up production of lithium all along the domestic supply chain to meet its clean energy goals.
On the border of northern Nevada and southeastern Oregon sits a caldera that formed around 16 million years ago through the collapse of a super volcano’s lava dome. Its formation created a soft clay sediment, and within it, one of the largest lithium deposits in the world.
The McDermitt Caldera is the proposed site of the Thacker Pass lithium mine, an open-pit operation of Lithium Nevada Corp., a subsidiary of Lithium Americas. The site, in Nevada’s Humboldt county, sits on public land administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The project is currently in the preconstruction phase, after years of getting federal permits approved, and is expected to have a lifetime of 41 years.
While environmental critics of Thacker Pass decry the extractive nature of all mining, proponents point to the expedited need for fossil fuel alternatives.
The lithium extracted from Thacker Pass will be used to make lithium-ion batteries, an essential component for a robust domestic supply chain in the production and manufacturing of electric vehicles — the cornerstone of U.S. President Joe Biden’s push to reduce carbon emissions and combat climate change.
Thacker Pass is a hotly contested site for the Native American people in the region. To members of the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone and the Burns Paiute tribes, Thacker Pass is a massacre site and sacred. It’s also important habitat for sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata), golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos), and medicinal plants. The Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, the People of Red Mountain and members of the Fort McDermitt Tribe filed lawsuits against the BLM for approving the permits for the mine without ample consultation with the tribes. The litigation is now in appeal, after several failed attempts in the past year to halt construction.
“As a sovereign nation, we understand that there are federal agencies that DON’T take their trust responsibilities seriously,” the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony said in a statement. “Government to government consultation is key for federal agencies to understand our views of the land and the culture it holds within it.”
The Thacker Pass lithium mine is slated to be one of the largest in the world, and how its future plays out — in the courtroom, on the land, and through the policies driving the U.S. to keep its lithium supply local — will become a touchstone. It will set a precedent on whether extracting lithium — now one of the world’s most sought-after metals — will be accepted as noxious but necessary, or not.
The fight for Thacker Pass
In July 2021, Will Falk, an environmental activist who camped in protest at the Thacker Pass site, “dusted off” his law degree, as he puts it, and filed a preliminary injunction to stop the project on behalf of the federally recognized tribe Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, which he represents. The Burns Paiute Tribe and Winnemucca Indian Colony are represented by other attorneys.
According to Falk, the permits were fast-tracked by the Trump administration, and the BLM didn’t do a thorough job consulting native tribes in its historical and cultural assessment of the land.
“After thorough research of the permitting process, we were shocked that only three tribes were notified. Largest lithium mine in the US, possibly the world, and out of 27 tribes in Nevada, three were notified,” said the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony in a statement to Mongabay.
The injunction states the BLM did not adequately research the historical record for the site, claiming the bureau either failed to find or hid the documents recording a massacre took place on the site in 1865.
“[The] Native American concerns about disturbances to the massacre site, and plans to mitigate adverse effects to the massacre site are completely missing from BLM’s communications with the Nevada State Historic Preservation Office, communications with the tribes … and the Historic Properties Treatment Plan,” Falk told Mongabay in an email.
The permits, whether approved or not, are destructive to the sacred sites in the area, Falk added.
“The idea of taking [artifacts] off the land, to [handle them] in order to carbon-date them, these things are offensive to my clients,” Falk said.
On the night of Sept. 12, 1865, U.S. cavalrymen killed between 30 and 70 Paiutes near the Pit River, say tribal members. They disemboweled some of their victims, wrapping their intestines around the sagebrush and creating a foul smell. Pee hee Mu’huh, the name of the site in the Paiute language, means “Rotten Moon,” and refers directly to that tragedy.
According to the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, two weeks after the massacre, the Owyhee Avalanche newspaper reported the massacre lasted three hours and every Paiute was killed. Additional details of the massacre note human remains being left at the scene. That makes it incumbent on the BLM to do an extensive Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act consultation at Thacker Pass, Falk said.
“The failure to investigate the Massacre, the Calvary and the important people in history attached to Thacker Pass is an injustice to Indigenous people and the truthful historical facts of the United States,” the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony said in a statement.
In August, a court denied the preliminary injunction. The judge also dismissed new evidence presented in November, allowing the excavation work to continue. An appeal to reconsider was filed on Feb. 3 this year, after the BLM was granted an extension to lodge additional documents into the administrative record. The appeal is pending at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.
The BLM declined to comment due to the pending litigation.
“We’ve been working hard over the past decade to design a responsible project and look forward to providing essential lithium-ion battery chemicals to fight climate change by dramatically reducing carbon emissions,” Tim Crowley, vice president of government affairs and community relations at Lithium Americas, said in a statement to Mongabay.
If the tribes’ appeal is granted, however, it doesn’t change the long-term goals of Canada-based Lithium Americas to mine at Thacker Pass. The appeal would require the BLM to reissue the permit, taking another year to assess and file the needed documents. Effectively, it’s a delay, not a stay.
For some, like Max Wilbert, who has been camping in protest at the site on and off since January 2021, delaying the project isn’t good enough.
“I’m critical of our legal system for its ability to protect our natural world,” Wilbert said. “I’m not confident the courts will do [what is] right.”
Glenn Miller, a professor at the natural resources and environmental department at the University of Nevada, said he was skeptical at first of the mining operation proposed at Thacker Pass. But since looking into the potential harms and details of how the mine would operate, he said, he now believes lithium production is vital to clean energy, with Thacker Pass playing a key role.
“It’s a neutral deposit — no pit lakes, no long-term drainage,” he said of the mine. “From a chemical perspective this one is relatively benign.”
Miller is also a co-founder of the nonprofit Great Basin Resource Watch, a watchdog organization that opposes extractive industries in the region. A staunch critic of gold mines, he decided Thacker Pass and other lithium mines were necessary to meet domestic demands for the metal in the coming years and to stave off the climate crisis. He left the organization over the disagreements.
“They say we should drive less,” Miller said about environmental opposition to the Thacker Pass mine. “I’m not going to argue with that, but it’s a nonstarter.”
However, Miller said he understood how the mine is “non-trivial” to Native people in the area.
“There is no free lunch here,” he said. “What I consider an impact as a white guy in Reno is different than what Native people think is an impact on the land. There are always trade-offs and there is no easy answer.”
Lithium and green energy projects studding the land
The U.S.’s “green energy” revolution will be fought through extensive land use. Large swaths of sun-drenched desert will be needed for massive solar farms; wind-swept shores will be studded with turbines; and craggy outposts will be carved out for lithium extraction.
For the latter, states other than Nevada containing lithium deposits include California, Colorado, Connecticut, Maine, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon and Wyoming — often in areas Indigenous tribes call home. An application for an open-pit lithium mine is in process in Gaston county, North Carolina, and drilling began in December in Malheur county, Oregon, on the northern edge of the McDermitt Caldera.
There are two well-studied methods of lithium extraction: the open-pit ore mine, such as that proposed at Thacker Pass, and brine extraction. Most of the lithium produced in South America is through brine extraction, which is pumped out of the ground and left to evaporate, leaving lithium byproducts.
But it’s a method that requires an enormous amount of water. In the “lithium triangle” that encompasses parts of Chile, Argentina and Bolivia, approximately 500,000 gallons (2.3 million liters) of water is used to produce 1 metric ton of lithium, which parches the land and impacts local farmers.
Brine extraction is also the method used at the only lithium production site currently operating in the U.S., in southwest Nevada. However, new methods, including using geothermal evaporation processes through lithium-rich deposits, such as a project site at the Salton Sea in southern California, can yield high concentrations of lithium. Indigenous resistance to the project centers on the fact that environmental impacts from geothermal extraction — at a site known for its toxic sludge — remain unknown.
And in Arizona, the Hualapai tribe at the Hualapai Cholla Canyon Ranch are fighting against an Australian lithium mine development at Ha’Kamwe, a sacred spring used for healing.
“There seems to be hard mining issues affecting Indigenous peoples,” Reno-Sparks Indian Colony representatives told Mongabay. “We hope that this lawsuit helps Americans understand if we are going to have this new rush for lithium it is going to cause the same kind of genocide the gold and silver rush had on Native Peoples in Nevada.”
The race to secure a domestic lithium supply
The U.S. transition to electrify transportation in the next three decades will be a massive infrastructure shift. The Biden administration’s push for clean energy relies heavily on electric vehicles that run on lithium-ion batteries.
Part of the goal, according to the national blueprint, is for 50% of all U.S. new car sales by 2030 to be electric. But with only about 2% of worldwide lithium production at present, according to U.S. Geological Survey data, the U.S. faces a massive supply shortfall to meet this demand. Australia and South America are the top lithium-producing regions in the world right now.
The move by the Biden administration is partially to meet clean energy demands and end reliance on fossil fuels, but it’s also foundational to the U.S.’s mandate to increase economic activity in auto manufacturing, while keeping the supply chain as domestic as possible.
The Thacker Pass mine would be the first location in the U.S. to also refine lithium on-site, avoiding the need to export it to China for refinement.
Nevada Lithium Corp. estimates up to 1,000 new jobs for the two-year construction period for the mine. While in operation, there will be 300 full-time positions for the life of the mine. This may come as a needed economic boost for some tribal members.
Native populations have almost always suffered a higher unemployment rate than the national average. The figure is currently more than 10% in non-metro areas. Concerns remain the mine will create a wealth divide between those who eventually work at Thacker Pass, and those who choose not to for cultural or environmental reasons.
The Reno-Sparks Indian Colony’s stance on the mine, however, is clear.
“Lithium is not green energy,” the tribe said in a statement. “Having the largest open pit mine in the U.S., possibly the world, is not safe nor compatible for humans. Taking down a mountain, annihilating old growth sagebrush and Indigenous people’s medicines, food and ceremonial grounds for electric vehicles isn’t very climate conscious.”
Banner image: Evaporating ponds of Silver Peak lithium mine on Silver Peak road between Silver Peak and Goldfield, Nevada. Image courtesy of Ken Lund via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: A conversation with Cultural Survival’s Daisee Francour and The Oakland Institute’s Anuradha Mittal on the importance of securing Indigenous land rights within the context of a global push for land privatization. Listen here: