(EnviroNews Nevada) — Orovada, Nevada — A turbulent spring for Lithium Nevada’s hotly contested lithium strip mining project in the Thacker Pass area of northern Nevada has given way to a tumultuous summer. The company – a subsidiary of Canada-based Lithium Americas – started construction in March, but continues to face ongoing resistance from indigenous land and water protectors who remain staunchly opposed to a strip mine being built on what they say are ancestral lands. They contend the mine tramples burial sites, will desecrate the environment and endanger the local ecosystem.
Members of regional tribes have engaged in a series of resistance camps in an effort to stop construction at the site. The Ox Sam Indigenous Women’s Camp (named after the only known adult survivor of the 1865 massacre at Thacker Pass) was raided by deputies from the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office on June 8 after one resistance member dared to block an excavator. A Diné (a.k.a. Navajo) woman was arrested for trespassing, even though video footage shows a young man was blocking the equipment.
The Sheriff’s office claims she was given a trespass warning like those who were allowed to leave and that she was offered a chance to depart with them, but refused. When questioned by EnviroNews, Lithium Nevada’s PR team told EnviroNews the Sheriff’s press release (posted on Facebook) describes exactly how the incident went down. But the camp’s members say otherwise, reporting the woman arrested was targeted and not allowed to leave.
TEEPEE CAMP RAID: TWO WILDLY DIVERGING ACCOUNTS
In what has turned into a fiery tit-for-tat confrontation with activists, environmental NGOs, and Native Protectors on one side, and Lithium Nevada, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office on the other, the two opposing alliances put forth wildly diverging accounts of how the June 8 raid went down.
Members of the Ox Sam Camp charged that personnel acting on behalf of the Sheriff’s staff and Lithium Nevada engaged in knocking down teepees, snapping teepee poles, and mishandling other ceremonial items before impounding them. The Protect Thacker Pass website explained the incident this way in an online post:
On Wednesday [June 8], the Humboldt County Sheriff’s [Office] on behalf of Lithium Nevada Corporation, raided the Ox Sam Newe Momokonee Nokutun (Ox Sam Indigenous Women’s Camp), destroying the two ceremonial teepee lodges, mishandling and confiscating ceremonial instruments and objects, and extinguishing the sacred fire that has been lit since May 11th when the Paiute-Shoshone Grandma-led prayer action began.
When questioned by EnviroNews, Lithium Nevada’s PR team denied allegations that teepees were wrecked, stating that such sacrilegious disregard “absolutely did not happen.” The PR team claimed that Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribal Chairman Arlo Crutcher was contacted and asked how to appropriately handle the situation. They said Crutcher sent an elder to the site, who arrived around the same time as a hazmat team from Clean Harbors that was sent in for cleanup needed due to the site allegedly having been used as a latrine for four weeks.
Lithium Nevada also said two Fort McDermitt tribal members bagged the sacred items and gave them to tribal member Dorece Sam. They said the tents were dismantled by Clean Harbors and that they still “have that stuff.”
At the time of the publishing of this article, the events surrounding this raid remain under review by the EnviroNews Nevada Investigative Unit.
Lithium Nevada has now filed a lawsuit against the Protect Thacker Pass group and seven of its activists, aiming to quell resistance efforts. The company was then granted a temporary restraining order by a judge with the Sixth Judicial District Court. That order restricts group members and “any third party acting in concert” with them from interfering with construction or obstructing access roads.
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Members from the Ox Sam Camp Say Instagram Video Shows Lithium Nevada Personnel Deliberately “Sped up and Swung Excavator Arm” at “Native American Protectors”
Executives from Lithium Nevada — who continue to resist speaking with EnviroNews on the record about their project, positions or new lawsuit — claim the company has been nothing but a great neighbor to the local community, meeting with the Thacker Pass Concerned Citizens working group approximately every eight weeks.
Lithium Americas also trumpets a community benefits agreement (CBA) with the Fort McDermitt Paiute-Shoshone Tribe “that ensures benefits from the Thacker Pass Project accrue to the tribe.” The CBA speaks of providing the Tribe with training and employment opportunities, a new community center, as well as support for cultural education and preservation. But it says nothing about dispersing any profits or royalties.
“It’s never a good idea for a company to do what Lithium Nevada is doing – its Goliath beating the hell out of David,” attorney Terry Lodge told EnviroNews regarding Lithium Nevada’s lawsuit that he likened to a SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation). Lodge has been working with attorney Will Falk who is representing the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony in two different court challenges to try to stop the mine on multiple fronts including a lack of federally mandated consultations with the affected tribes.
Encampment of Protectors Gathers on Land Slated for the Thacker Pass Lithium Strip Mining Project — Video: Emerson Urry, for: EnviroNews
“Paiutes and Shoshones are being sued for peacefully defending the final resting places of their massacred ancestors,” Falk asserted in a press release which also includes commentary from the indigenous defendants named in Lithium Nevada’s legal complaint.
“The Indian wars are continuing in 2023, right here. America and the corporations who control it should have finished off the ethnic genocide, because we’re still here,” Dean Barlese, elder and spiritual leader from the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, said. ”My great-great-grandfather fought for this land in the Snake War and we will continue to defend the sacred. Lithium Nevada is a greedy corporation telling green lies.”
The Area Slated to be Strip Mined in the Thacker Pass Lithium Mine Project — Video: Emerson Urry, for: EnviroNews
“Our people couldn’t return to Thacker Pass for fear of being killed in 1865, and now in 2023 we can’t return or we’ll be arrested,” Bethany Sam from the Standing Rock Sioux and Kutzadika’a Paiute Tribes added. “Meanwhile, bulldozers are digging our ancestors’ graves up,” Sam continued. “This is what Indigenous peoples continue to endure. That’s why I stood in prayer with our elders leading the way.”
Thacker Pass Lithium Mine Project Site — Video: Emerson Urry, for: EnviroNews
Legal actions attempting to overturn the permits for the mine have also alleged violation of the Endangered Species Act and water laws, and dozens of other infractions in addition to the alleged lack of tribal consultations. The project received federal approval in the final days of the pro-mining Trump Administration, but Biden’s Interior Department — under the leadership of Deb Haaland, America’s first Native American Cabinet member — has failed to heed pleas from indigenous leaders at Thacker Pass and has continued to back the Trump-Bernhardt-Pendley plan.
“We want her to come out here at least to explain to the tribes as to what she can do, you know, besides remaining silent on it,” Arlan Melendez of the Reno-Sparks Colony told NPR recently. Yet even NPR’s request to interview Haaland was denied by the gatekeepers at the Interior Department.
The Biden Administration has set a goal for 50 percent of new vehicles sold in the U.S. to be electrified by 2030. Lithium batteries can also be used to store wind and solar power. Nevada contains some of the world’s largest lithium deposits, and hence, prospectors from far and wide are eyeballing the Silver State and seeing the dollar signs. Despite the need to put a damper on Co2 emissions, environmentalists say there are better ways to obtain lithium than a strip mining project on Native burial grounds in the midst of priority sage grouse habitat, and they tell EnviroNews they’ll keep fighting to stop it.
LITHIUM MINING: PART OF A GREEN NEW DEAL OR GREEN COLONIALISM?
Proponents tout lithium extraction as an essential aspect of the fight against the rapidly unfurling climate change crisis since lithium is a key source for batteries in electric vehicles. EVs can help get carbon emitting gas guzzlers off the road but this too, comes at a cost. Many of the environmentalists at Thacker Pass view the selling points of vehicle electrification as blatant greenwashing, since hard rock mining typically creates a plethora of pollution for neighboring communities.
Lithium Nevada’s PR team points to a written piece by Glenn Miller, a University of Nevada-Reno professor emeritus and environmental chemist, who supported the mine in a Reno Gazette Journal editorial last year writing this:
The transportation sector is responsible for about 30 percent of carbon dioxide release, and this sector needs to become electrified. These critical batteries indeed require a variety of metals… Substitutes for some of these metals are being investigated, but lithium is the critical metal for which there are no substitutes. It is the lightest metal and has the electrochemical properties necessary for efficient energy storage.
Miller went on to claim the Lithium Nevada project “is the most benign mine” he had examined in his 40 years as a critic of the mining industry.
Indigenous tribal members view the Lithium Nevada mining project in a much different light. “[The mine] will turn what is left of my ancestral homelands into a sacrifice zone for electric car batteries,” Fort McDermitt Paiute Shoshone Tribe member Shelley Harjo countered, in her own editorial in the Nevada Current last year.
Daranda Hinkey – the great-great-great-granddaughter of Ox Sam, the man believed to be the only adult survivor of the 1865 massacre – was co-founder of another resistance camp named People of Red Mountain. At the end of 2021, the now 25-year-old member of the Fort McDermitt Paiute-Shoshone Tribe told EnviroNews this:
[The mine] shouldn’t be called green, it shouldn’t be called clean… I still don’t think they understand the true environmental impacts and harms, not only for this generation but for the generations forward.
“Lithium mines and this whole push for renewable energy — the agenda of the Green New Deal — is what I like to call green colonialism,″ Hinkey told the Associated Press in June. “It’s going to directly affect my people, my culture, my religion, my tradition, my children and children after that.’’
Native Americans Singing Pow Wow Music at the Thacker Pass Site — Video: Dakota Otero — for: EnviroNews Nevada
Terry Lodge tells EnviroNews “the Green New Deal needs to be greener,” saying the push to get lithium for electric car batteries is leading to destruction of the landscape under the “notion that we can industrialize our way out of this problem.”
“The only thing that’s actually green about the Thacker Pass mine is the color of the money the project would make for its wealthy investors,” lamented Kelly Fuller, Energy and Mining Campaign Director for Western Watersheds Project (WWP), when Trump’s BLM approved it.
For purposes of clarity, the Green New Deal Resolution from Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) and Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) is not yet an actual piece of legislation, but rather a collection of policy proposals that is still being refined and worked out. The Green New Deal Implementation Guide – last updated in April – offers more details on possibilities that are still subject to debate.
Meanwhile, Lodge accuses Lithium Nevada of aiming to operate the Thacker Pass mine for 45 years, which he says will use some three million gallons of water per day, destroy 12 to 14 square miles of land and leave a giant pit filled with rubble. He added that the mine will also threaten local wildlife. This could include trout streams, two pronghorn antelope (Antilocapra americana) migration corridors, golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) that nest in nearby cliffs, and thousands of acres of priority habitat for greater sage grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus).
John Hadder – Executive Director for the nonprofit environmental watchdog Great Basin Resource Watch (GBRW) – says his organization has numerous concerns about the Thacker Pass lithium mine, including how it will actually be a contributor to the climate change problem. Hadder told EnviroNews this in a recent interview:
Mining contributes to climate change primarily in two ways: the use of fossil fuels at the mine, and the destruction of ecosystems and habitats which are part of the climate moderation system of the planet. Once the operation has been developed, the habitat, which is part of how the planet breathes, you’re taking that away…. Whatever habitat is there is obliterated. The ecosystems are part of our planetary moderation… You’re basically taking away a piece of that.
Hadder says GBRW’s research indicates the federal government should be putting a greater emphasis on “getting more people involved in the public transportation sector,” rather than investing in environmentally destructive lithium mining for electric cars.
“[Public transportation] is something that can be implemented in the short term. The Thacker Pass mine is still years away from producing lithium,” Hadder noted.
SAGE GROUSE: SMACK-DAB IN THE CENTER OF YET ANOTHER PUBLIC LANDS BATTLE
Hadder and GBR are also very concerned about the ramifications of sage grouse habitat being put in the line of fire by the mine.
“One thing that is fairly quantifiable is that a mine site is going to remove priority sage grouse habitat… They’re an indicator species for the ecosystem – if the ecosystem that would normally support sage grouse is failing, their population will fail,” Hadder explained. “We know ecosystems are very connected and complex, and the idea of pulling one out is a very arrogant and ignorant point of view.”
Excerpt from Documentary by EnviroNews Nature: The Splendor of Utah’s Sage Hen Hollow — One of America’s Last Bustling Sage Grouse Leks
Katie Fite, Public Lands Director for Wildlands Defense, tells EnviroNews the sage grouse will face “existential danger” from the lithium mine’s harsh impact on the landscape. She says the sage grouse issue is not just an outlier, but that the ground-dwelling bird continues to be the centerpiece in environmental battles throughout the West.
Fite elaborated this way:
Sage grouse need a relatively intact undisturbed landscape to survive. They have quite specific habitat needs in different seasons of the year and move across the landscape to fulfill those needs. In hard winters, they need dense low elevation sagebrush standing above the snow. The Thacker Pass mine LNC is right now bulldozing that essential sagebrush, Including trenching and burying a major water pipeline for the mining activity and a lithium processing plant.
The open pit and mine water use will impact surrounding springs and drainages, many of which [at this time] have minimal cows [using them]. Sage grouse chicks rely on moist area mesic vegetation in summer to survive. If you lose the springs, that habitat goes away. In fact, a petition has been filed to list a rare snail that inhabits springs facing mine-caused water loss.
Environmental groups say the Thacker Pass project flies in the face of a historic agreement reached in 2015 between the federal government, western states and an array of other stakeholders to keep the imperiled bird off the endangered species list in what has already been the costliest and most far reaching endangered species battle in U.S. history.
Secretary Sally Jewell Makes the Most Anticipated Wildlife Announcement in U.S. History in Colorado, 2015 — via EnviroNews Wyoming
Another issue at Thacker Pass is the discrepancy between federal permitting and state permitting. GBRW’s Hadder says Trump’s BLM gave Lithium Nevada the go-ahead to excavate below the water table, while Nevada’s permit only currently allows for mining above the water table. Hadder elaborated this way:
Basically, the state wanted more analysis. The problem is when they go below the water table, the plan is to backfill the pit with waste material, rock and so forth that doesn’t have enough lithium to be ore. However, when you break up the rock material, you start exposing it to air and water and it can act differently from before it was excavated. The groundwater will seep through it and begin extracting toxic metals; the two most concerning ones are arsenic and antimony. As it leaches out, these toxic metals become part of the groundwater system which is a violation of Nevada law, which is why the state said no… until they can demonstrate a technically feasible way to do it. So this is a good example of how sloppy the federal permitting was.
Agricultural Lands Sitting Directly Below the Thacker Pass Lithium Mine Site
Katie Fite tells EnviroNews that gold miners have long treated Nevada like a mining colony and that lithium miners are now being given the same carte blanche. “Now we have the federal government with these lithium mines giving the mines long term ‘loans’ – damn the consequences to sage grouse, water, cultural significance or anything else… What do we see now? More broken BLM promises.”
Fite continued to EnviroNews:
BLM rammed this project through with many loose ends during the COVID pandemic — so fast that the design of the air scrubbers that are supposed to control the mine’s air pollution was never finalized. Instead it was “Trust us, it’s all good…” What effect will pollutants falling out on vegetation have on the animals eating it? And what all will be in the air emissions?
Concerned about what’s going on at the site, Fite took a recent road trip to Thacker Pass and wrote about it for Counterpunch. She described a run-in with Allied Security, who didn’t want to let her pass on what is still a public road. Her description of the contentious interaction with the head of security made it sound like Lithium Nevada had hired mercenary black-ops style goons from Blackwater to intimidate anyone who tried to get through. Allied Security – the third largest private employer in the United States – has a checkered past of deploying “underpaid and undertrained guards in cities across America, where they put themselves and the general public at risk,” according to Time Magazine.
Lithium Nevada has also contracted the notorious Bechtel Corporation to serve as the engineering, procurement and construction management firm that will lead the construction effort of the mine. This is the same corporate behemoth the government deploys on some of its largest construction projects and which the Department of Energy (DOE) has tasked with cleaning up America’s worst radioactive messes. This includes the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Eastern Washington, where Bechtel was accused by whistleblowers in 2013 of doing defective work and then illegally lobbying for budget increases. The Justice Department joined the lawsuit in 2016, then settled for $125 million but allowed Bechtel to remain on the job.
Meanwhile at Thacker Pass, Katie Fite questions the level of “stink and toxic pollution” the mine will generate, noting the soil also contains uranium and mercury and that “enormous volumes of diesel fuel will be used throughout the mine’s operation… What’s green about all this?” she asks.
“We need a smart energy future that transitions our economy from fossil fuels to renewables without sacrificing rare species in the process,” Greta Anderson, Deputy Director with Western Watersheds Project, said in January. “We can’t solve the climate crisis by deepening the biodiversity crisis.”
FILM AND ARTICLE CREDITS
- Greg Schwartz - Journalist, Author