The lithium paradox

Thacker Pass mine: ‘green energy’ boon or eco-disaster?

PHOTO/MAX WILBERT: Opponents of the Thacker Pass lithium mine have been encamped at the site northwest of Winnemucca for three months.

Proponents tout the Thacker Pass lithium mine as a “carbon neutral” venture that will counter climate change; opponents say the Trump administration’s rushed approval of the project ignored significant environmental impacts and will dry up wells in a ranching community.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management in January approved the final permit for the $1.6 billion project, located about 53 miles northeast of Winnemucca. The environmental review process was fast-tracked, with the BLM’s assessment completed in less than a year. Lithium Nevada, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Canada-based Lithium Americas, plans to break ground this year on the mine, which is predicted to have a 46-year lifespan.

For the last three months, a core group of protestors under the banner of “Protect Thacker Pass” have been encamped at the site. Their occupation is a tactic aimed at focusing national attention on the project’s potential environmental consequences. The weekend of April 24, the campers, including members of Nevada tribal communities, were joined by indigenous people and environmental activists from around the country who lent their support to the protest.

Lithium, the main component for rechargeable batteries found in high-tech devices from electric cars to cell phones, is hailed as a green-energy solution to fossil fuels. But some environmentalists say extracting the element comes at too high a cost for rural communities, endangered species and dwindling water resources, and will further poison the environment.

A 2018 study valued the Thacker Pass operation at $2.59 billion after taxes. Its output was estimated to start at an annual rate of 30,000 tons of battery-grade lithium carbonate, increasing to 60,000 tons by 2026.

Digging into consequences

In the Nevada desert, the dream of a Green New Deal is colliding with concerns about pollution and what opponents say is a huge carbon footprint created by lithium extraction and processing. In a sprint to a green revolution, the long-term damage that the project will cause has been ignored or intentionally obscured, according to critics.

 “We are not going to fix the climate if we don’t do it right,” John Hadder, the executive director of Great Basin Resource Watch, told the Associated Press when federal regulators approved the permit for the mine. “There’s nothing ‘green’ about sloppy permitting.”

Great Basin Resource Watch is among a coalition of citizens’ conservation and public accountability groups, including the Western Watersheds Project, Basin and Range Watch and Wildlands Defense, that has filed a federal lawsuit challenging the legality of the environmental review process. A local rancher also has filed suit against the mining company because he fears the nearly 2-square-mile, open-pit mine will deplete groundwater and leave pollutants in its wake for centuries to come.

PHOTO/IAN BIGLEY: Thacker Pass. The mine site is northwest of Orovada, in a valley between the Double H Mountains and Montana Mountains

Community opposition

The environmental groups and local stakeholders, including indigenous people and ranchers, are concerned about the mine’s potential to pollute the land, water and air. The Thacker Pass project would produce 5,800 tons of toxic sulfuric acid daily and require constant heavy diesel truck traffic to bring in raw materials to the work site, according to the company’s technical report. The resulting air pollution from the 24-hour-a-day operation could cause asthma attacks, heart problems, lung problems, skin and eye irritation, and, potentially, cancer, opponents say.

Critics argue that the waste from processing the ore with sulfuric acid could seep into groundwater for more than 300 years after the site is refilled – an estimate that comes from the mining company’s contractor and a concern referenced by the Environmental Protection Agency in a letter to the BLM.

Some nearby residents —  and state and local officials — support the project because it would create well-paying jobs and boost Humboldt County’s economy. Gov. Steve Sisolak backs increased lithium mining in the Silver State. President Joe Biden’s clean energy policy, which promotes the swift adoption of electric vehicles and more research into storage batteries, also is a boost to the lithium extraction and processing industry.

 

Mine’s benefits touted

In September, Nevada Governor’s Office of Economic Development approved nearly $9 million in tax abatements for the project. The mine is projected to require more than 1,000 workers during construction and employ 265 people at the mine within 10 years. When operations begin, Lithium Americas plans to hire 113 people at an average wage of $37.84 an hour, more than three times the average pay rate in the area. The project would generate about $75 million in state and local tax revenue over a decade, according to the company’s project page.

Lithium Americas has promoted the mine as an environmentally-sound project — the world’s first “carbon neutral” lithium mine, meaning it won’t further contribute to global warming. Company officials say the operation will use the best mining practices to reduce water consumption, and air and noise emissions.

In an interview on the Sierra Nevada Ally’s Wild Hare Podcast, Alexi Zawadzki, Lithium Americas’ CEO, said he considers himself an environmentalist. Zawadzki, a hydrologist, explained that he previously worked for a renewable energy company.

“I wanted to leave this world a better place than when I came to it, so we built these small hydro projects, and they were great, beautiful, elegant projects, but are they going to move the needle?  I didn’t see that. So I looked at my skill set, and I said, ‘okay, where, where can I move the needle?’ and that was lithium… That is my motivation. I’m still focused on value creation; this project will make money and all the rest. But my philosophy does play into this. I’m very motivated to de-carbonize the economy.”

– Alexi Zawadski, CEO of Lithium Americas.

A rush to approval

The project was fast tracked through the federal permitting process last year.

The federal lawsuit filed by the environmental coalition alleges that the Bureau of Land Management violated two federal environmental laws in its rush to grant the mining permit. Although the agency found that the project would have “no significant impact” on the ecosystem, the lawsuit claims the BLM failed to fully determine baseline conditions at the site; analyze mitigation measures and their effectiveness; analyze direct, indirect, and cumulative impacts; ensure compliance with air and water quality standards and protect public resources; and did not address the need for perpetual active treatment of water pollution.

The suit alleges the agency failed to ensure compliance with the area’s resource management plan and its protections of the greater sage grouse species as required by federal law. The complaint notes that the mine will destroy nearly 5,000 acres of pronghorn antelope winter range for the life of the mine as well as 427 acres of summer range. It would also sever the antelopes’ two critical seasonal migration routes, and have a negative impact on other vulnerable and protected species, including golden eagles, amphibians and several sensitive plant species, according to the complaint.

PHOTO/PROGRESSIVE LEADERSHIP ALLIANCE OF NEVADA: A visitor looks out at the area where the open pit mine would be excavated.

Moms Clean Air Force

Jennifer Cantley of Reno, who organized the Nevada chapter of Moms Clean Air Force, noted that lawsuits take years to wind through the court system, but that Nevada Division of Environmental Protection must issue air and water permits for construction of the mine to move forward.

“The environmental impact statement that was the basis of the federal permit wasn’t adequate and the process was rushed through without giving people a real opportunity to comment,” she said. “The company says it did send out a public comment notice, but they did it during a pandemic and people were focused on the immediate health and financial concerns related to the pandemic.”

Cantley attended a recent meeting of the Humboldt County Commission where residents raised concerns and had questions about the project. “(A commissioner) told the people that there’s no time for public hearings anymore and that the public comments are done,” she said. “He said ‘there’s nothing you can do about (the mine); it’s coming whether you like this or not.’ But that’s not true.”

State oversight required

In a Zoom presentation April 22, Nevada Division of Environmental Protection officials explained that Lithium Americas must still obtain a reclamation permit and a water pollution control permit. They said the company must satisfy the requirements of state statutes that protect air and water quality. The agency is accepting public comments about both issues and public hearings are scheduled. The water permit hearing is slated for May 25 and a public hearing on the state air quality permit is being planned for June.

IMAGE/NEVADA DIVISION OF ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION: The agency, which is tasked with considering the impact of the proposed lithium mine on air and water quality, is accepting public comments.

Those interested in the state permitting process may sign up to receive public notices on the NDEP website by scrolling down the page and clicking on the orange button to input their email addresses.

Cantley said many Humboldt County residents she spoke to were unaware of the mine project until a few months ago. “Now that they know, people are demanding answers,” she said. “They are feeling betrayed right now and they are coming together… You see someone wearing a ‘Trump 2024’ hat, environmentalists and tribal people all on the same team against the mining company… They are making their voices heard, really loud.”

Company cites support

In an email to the Reno News & Review, Lithium Americas noted it has held open houses in Orovada since 2017, shortly after the firm merged with Western Lithium. “We also have a regular newsletter that goes to the homes in Orovada and is also available at the post office and restaurant/gas station. The newsletters are on our website,” the company wrote. The email noted that opponents of the project are vocal, but there is “a quieter majority that is pleased this project is happening.”

The company noted that “there are more than 30” members of the Fort McDermitt Paiute-Shoshone Tribe who have expressed interest in jobs at the mine. “Many have gone through the buildNV training program (Lithium Americas) helped found with Great Basin Community College (with) courses offered at Fort McDermitt.”

SCREEN GRAB/PROTECT THACKER PASS: A drum circle and dancers at the Thacker Pass encampment.

Ancestral territory

The Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribal Council initially negotiated a project engagement agreement with the company, but pulled out of the deal under pressure from traditional members of the community. Some tribal members oppose the project because they believe it would destroy ancestral lands and animal habitat, pollute the environment and disturb Indian burial sites.

The weekend of April 24, indigenous people from around the country were invited to join the occupiers at the Thatcher Pass encampment to pray and participate in drum circles, and dances, and to take part in a 60-mile prayer run from the Fort McDermitt reservation to the mine site.

 Myron Smart, a tribal elder from Fort McDermitt, is among the participants at the camp. In an interview broadcast on First Voices Indigenous Radio March 28, Smart said the Thatcher Pass area encompasses an obsidian deposit used by native people for thousands of years and is a source of medicinal plants. He noted that the mine would disrupt animal routes and habitats.

PHOTO/PROGRESSIVE LEADERSHP ALLIANCE OF NEVADA: From left, Myron Smart, Will Falk and Ian Bigley at the Thacker Pass occupation camp.

Place of the ‘Rotten Moon

There also are Indian burials in the area, he said.

“Elders used to talk about them and tell (children) to be careful when you are out there,” Smart said in the interview. “They would say ‘try not to disturb anything; leave things alone and just watch. Maybe one day you’ll feel (the spirits of those who died).’” 

— Myron Smart, member of the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe.

Smart said the traditional Paiute name for Thacker Pass is Pee-hee-mm-huh, which translates into “Rotten Moon.” He explained that tribal lore holds that a massacre of women and children took place nearby while the men of the band were off hunting elsewhere. When the men returned, they discovered their relatives murdered and mutilated bodies decomposing amidst the sagebrush.

Rancher files suit

Some members of the local ranching community also oppose the mine project.

Rancher Ed Bartell filed a federal lawsuit that alleges that the BLM broke the law when it approved the mine’s plan and characterizes the company’s environmental impact statement to be “one-sided, deeply flawed, and incomplete.” He contends that Lithium Americas downplayed the project’s likely effects on groundwater, streams, and the threatened Lahontan cutthroat trout.

 Bartell, who organized a citizens’ group against the project, initially thought the mine would be a positive development for the region and wanted to know more about it. In November 2019, he received an email from Lithium Americas’ CEO Zawadzki assuring him that the “operation will use very little water – approximately 2,500 acre-feet of well water per year.”  The BLM’s environmental impact statement states that after four years of operation, the mine would use more than twice that amount annually, which Bartell believes would draw down the area’s water table and put ranchers’ livelihoods in jeopardy.

His lawsuit alleges that his operation would be irreparably harmed by the mine and that it also would cause irreversible harm to fish, wildlife, wetlands, and stream flows.

Mistrust of the company

Ian Bigley, mining justice organizer for the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, said that although Lithium Americas may have consulted with area residents, “consultation isn’t acceptance.” The firm, he said, must not be allowed ram through the project when significant environmental impacts haven’t been examined.

“Approaching the climate change crisis with our heads isn’t enough,” Bigley said. “The problem also has to be addressed with our hearts, with the understanding that the simple gravity of the climate crisis doesn’t warrant sacrificing communities against their will. That replicates the very problems we’re trying to solve.”

He noted that if the mine goes into operation, 75 semi trucks per day will bring sulfur to its processing operation. Sulfur dioxide will be a byproduct of processing the ore, a pollutant that the firm says will be controlled by scrubbing technology. “But when you look at the documents, you see that (the company claims) that doubling the amount of ore processed won’t have a commensurate increase in emissions,” Bigley said. “They are claiming they’ll use a new scrubbing technique that no one is familiar with or that even exists right now.”

Repeating the same mistakes

Such vague and incomplete information, he said, increases mistrust of the company.

“The way the company and the BLM has approached this has been very disingenuous,” Bigley said. “It illustrates how narrowly we are approaching climate change as an issue. We are not going to be able to simply invent our way out of the crisis.”

He also noted that there’s no cost-effective way to recycle lithium-ion batteries, which will find their graves in landfills. Instead, the element needs to be recycled, handled in a “cradle-to-cradle” way. “The attitude of ‘yeah, we’ll figure that out some day, but right now let’s rush to extract the lithium out of the ground first,’” he said.

“We can’t keep implementing solutions that continue the social oppressions and ecological degradation which drive the very problems we aim to solve… We have to more honest about creating more sustainable technology.”

— Ian Bigley, Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada.

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2 Comments

  1. In a recent article in the New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/06/business/lithium-mining-race.html?campaign_id=13&emc=edit_ws_20210518&instance_id=31004&nl=wheels&regi_id=121221516&segment_id=58380&te=1&user_id=8de7e862d859cb18436127be9488a57d

    it is revealed that Lithium Americas’ largest shareholder is a Chinese company Ganfeng Lithium. So, where are the profits going to windup from extracting minerals in Nevada?
    Ford Motor will be purchasing a large portion of the Lithium batteries for it’s automobiles and they say that they will be very attentive to the extraction process involved in obtaining the Lithium.
    Rather than bring all the sulfuric acid into Nevada why don’t they export the ore in railroad cars to process it somewhere there is no water and other environmental issues. It may be more expensive that way but the environmental damage to Nevada will mostly be avoided.

  2. Does a volcano destroy the land? All we’re talking about is changing it into something else on a temporary basis. This notion that digging a hole is any different than a volcano destroying every tree and wildlife leaving for years is absurd. 41 years after the mine closes it will be a new forest or prairie or whatever it is now just as the forest is around Mt St. Helens today. It doesn’t destroy everything around it and make it unable to be enjoyed. Que the naysayers.

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