Before breaking ground on an open-pit lithium mine that would process ore in Humboldt County for 46 years, Lithium Nevada plans to dig up and cart away Native American artifacts — and possibly burials — at the site frequented by Nevada tribes for millennia.
“From an indigenous perspective, removing burial sites or anything of that sort is bad medicine,” said Daranda Hinkey, a member of the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone tribe and secretary of Atsa Koodakuh wyh Nuwu (People of Red Mountain), a group of tribal members formed to stop the project.
“Our tribe believes we risk sickness if we remove or take those things,” Hinkey said. “We simply do not want any burial sites in Thacker Pass or anywhere in the surrounding area to be taken. The ones who passed on were prayed for and therefore should stay in their place, no matter what. We need to respect these places. The people at Lithium Nevada wouldn’t go and dig up their family gravesites because they found lithium there, so why are they trying to do that to ours?”
A federal environmental review of the project identified more than a thousand cultural resource sites that would be damaged by the mine, as well as 52 historic properties eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.
According to a motion filed in federal court, Lithium Nevada intends to begin “mechanical trenching” operations in July at seven undisclosed sites within the project area, each up to 40 meters long and “a few meters deep.” The corporation also plans to dig at 20 other undisclosed sites. The trenches are part of a historical and cultural resources plan that tribal members say has never been subject to meaningful consultation with the affected tribes or to National Environmental Policy Act analysis.
A rush to approval
The fight against the removals is the latest front in a battle by some environmentalists and indigenous people to stop the mining of the nation’s largest-known lithium deposit. The element is the main component for rechargeable batteries found in high-tech devices from electric cars to cell phones. It is touted as a green-energy replacement for fossil fuels and an essential resource to combat climate change.
Lithium Nevada says it has worked with surrounding communities to be a responsible neighbor and minimize ecological damage. It also says it has invited local tribal representatives to take part in discussions about the cultural resources and impacts of the mine. The company promotes Thacker Pass 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.
Opponents argue that extracting the element comes at too high a cost for rural residents, endangered species, and dwindling water resources. They cite data that indicate the mining and on-site processing operation, which will produce thousands of tons of sulfuric acid a day, will further poison the environment.
At a rally held at City Plaza in Reno June 12, indigenous people from tribes across Northern Nevada and their allies urged those in attendance to oppose the mine, which was expedited through the federal approval process during the last five days of the Trump administration. Tribal members who spoke at the rally said they share concerns about pollution from the project and object to the destruction of the 2-square-mile area that was traditionally shared by several Nevada tribes.
An ancient homeland
Those nations include the Fort McDermitt Paiute Shoshone Tribe, the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes of the Duck Valley Reservation, the Lovelock Paiute Tribe, the Fallon Paiute Shoshone Tribe, the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe and the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony. The traditional name for Thacker Pass is Peehee mu’huh, which translates to “rotten moon,” a reference to villagers who were massacred in the area while their men were away hunting and who returned to find the remains of their kin decomposing in the desert.
“Just because regional tribes have been isolated and forced onto reservations relatively far away from Thacker Pass does not mean these regional tribes do not possess cultural connections to the Pass…. To disturb this massacre site, Peehee mu’huh, would be like disturbing Pearl Harbor or Arlington National Cemetery. Destroying these sites destroys our history. And, it makes us wonder if an underlying motivation for this mine is to destroy the historical evidence of the genocide perpetrated against our people.” — Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, in a letter to the Bureau of Land Management, June 3.
A five-month occupation
Beginning on Jan. 15, a core group of protestors under the banner of “Protect Thacker Pass” has been continuously encamped at the remote site. The occupation is a tactic aimed at focusing national attention on the project’s potential environmental consequences. The protestors seek to build a network of allies in advance of the confrontation that will come when the mining company’s crews are scheduled to begin work on the project in July.
Max Wilbert, who with Will Falk, founded the Protect Thacker Pass protest camp in January, was among the speakers at the Reno rally. He noted that lithium’s connection with green energy has made it difficult for people to understand that extracting and processing the element also comes with a massive environmental price tag.
“This (occupation) is not easy work,” Wilbert told the crowd in City Plaza. “You know, the mainstream environmental movement, the Democratic Party, progressives in general, in this country have bought into this whole idea of lithium as green, as a savior… And I understand that because people are so afraid of global warming and what we’re seeing with the climate. And I understand that, too. I fear it a lot, as well. But when people are afraid they’re easy to manipulate. And I think that’s what’s happened here, we’ve been manipulated into believing this lie.”
A federal lawsuit filed by a coalition of environmental groups 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 suit 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 sensitive animal and plant species as required by law, according to the complaint. A local rancher also filed suit against the project, alleging it will deplete the region’s agricultural water supply.
Falk, an attorney who started the occupation camp with Wilbert, told the crowd that it’s possible, but unlikely, that the court may issue a preliminary injunction to stop the company from digging up artifacts after July 29. He said although the environmental groups have asked for the injunction, those orders require plaintiffs to prove they would be likely to win the underlying case, “so while we’re hopeful,” that “would be exceptional if it happened,” he said.
The front line
“There could be desecration of Thacker Pass as soon as July 29,” Falk said. “…We really need people to consider whether they can come up to camp, whether they can come up to Thacker Pass and put their bodies on the front line in case we have to stop any sort of construction equipment from digging up cultural resources, from destroying the land. So, yeah, please, please take a deep look into your heart and ask yourself if you’re the kind of person that could do this.”
He told the crowd he knows that such activism is a “really scary proposition” and that many people are not in a position in their lives where they are able to do it. But for those who may be able to join the occupation, he said, “we’re not going to be able to save the planet and stop the destruction of the planet from home, from our couches. We’re going to have to get out on the front lines. And we’re going to have to stop these people from doing what they want to do.”
The Thacker Pass project would have a value of $2.59 billion after taxes, according to the company’s estimate in 2018. Its output was estimated to start at an annual rate of 30,000 tons of battery-grade lithium carbonate, which would ramp up to 60,000 tons by 2026.
Support for the mine
Some Humboldt County 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.
“Nevada is at the geographical center of energy transmission for the Western U.S. and has an opportunity to become to energy what Wall Street is to finance, or what Silicon Valley is to technology. . And, guess what, Nevada is home to the most accessible lithium reserves in North America.” — Gov. Steve Sisolak, “State of the State” address, Jan. 19.
In September, the 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, the company 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, and $34 million in additional economic activity in the state, according to an estimate by the BLM.
No ‘miracle cure’
Sandy Ingersoll, a medical assistant who attended the rally in City Plaza, said she began researching lithium mining after she heard about the Reno event. She understands the need to abandon fossil fuels and mitigate climate change, she said, but fears the rush to create green-energy solutions will result in environmental problems that could be avoided with better planning.
“Everybody wants a miracle cure,” she said. “But there’s always a cost; nothing is free… You can’t just wave a wand and say everything is solved with electric cars.”
Ingersoll, who said she learned a lot in researching lithium mining and by attending the rally, said combating climate change and increasing economic development are essential goals for the nation and Nevada.
But, she said, “it’s not ever simple and there are people who are left out of the discussion that need to be heard. The people who make the decisions are all about maximizing corporate profits. They shouldn’t be the ones who decide things for all of us.”