PHOTO/MAX WILBERT: Opponents of the Thacker Pass lithium mine say the project would irrevocably harm the environment and water resources at the site northwest of Winnemucca.
EDITOR'S UPDATE, 2/25/23: U.S. District Judge Miranda Du on Feb. 24 denied the mine opponents’ request for an emergency injunction to prohibit work at the Thacker Pass project. Her ruling clears the way for Lithium Nevada to begin construction in March, but conservationists are appealing Du's ruling in a last-ditch effort to halt the work.

A federal judge in Reno has ruled that the Bureau of Land Management violated U.S. environmental law the when it approved Lithium Nevada’s plan to bury 1,300 acres of public lands under waste rock.

Judge Miranda Du rejected other claims by mine opponents that the company and BLM failed to conduct proper environmental investigations or do the required consultation with Indigenous tribes. Conservation groups filed an emergency motion in federal court Feb. 21 asking the court to enjoin the development of the Thacker Pass Lithium Mine until their case can be heard on appeal at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

In her recent decision,  Judge Du ruled that the BLM and the mining company reexamine its compliance process to determine whether the company had valid existing rights under the 1872 Mining Law to occupy the waste dump lands. But her order didn’t block development of the Thacker Pass project about 53 miles northeast of Winnemucca.

The plaintiffs’ latest fling requests that the court block ground disturbance and construction until compliance with federal laws is assured. In a related development, three Indigenous tribes have filed a new lawsuit against the project. The Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, the Burns Paiute Tribe and the Summit Lake Paiute Tribe are plaintiffs in the suit filed Feb. 21.

In her initial decision, Du ruled that the BLM violated the Federal Lands Policy and Management Act by assuming mining claim rights without evidence, a claim that was a fundamental part of the case brought by environmental justice and conservation groups, ranchers and Nevada Indigenous tribes.

The plaintiffs supported Du’s decision; the mining company said it can remedy the permit problem and get the $1.6 billion project back on track.

Under a federal law passed in 1872, mining companies are given wide latitude to extract minerals from federal lands and have been considered exempt from some environmental assessment requirements. But a federal court’s decision in an unrelated case in 2022, found that mining companies do not necessarily have the right to store waste rock or erect buildings on federal land not containing valuable minerals.

The federal agency and the mining corporation will now have to prove that the lands to be buried by 1,300 acres of waste dumps contain valuable minerals, which is a very strict test under federal mining laws.

“This mine should not be allowed to destroy public land unless and until the Ninth Circuit has determined whether it was legally approved,” said Talasi Brooks, staff attorney with Western Watersheds Project. “There’s no evidence that Lithium Nevada will be able to establish valid mining claims to lands it plans to bury in waste rock and tailings, but the damage will be done regardless,”

If the project is not stopped pursuant to the emergency motion, the company has said it will proceed with the blasting of the mine pit, construction of the sulfuric acid processing plant and the development of other facilities. The opponents argue that those actions will imminently destroy critical wildlife habitat and public lands.

“There is no sustainable way to allow the excavation of a 2.3 mile long open pit that will remove over 17 million tons of rock and ore per year for 41 years.” said Kevin Emmerich, Co-Founder of Basin and Range Watch.  “The flawed and fast-tracked approval of this mine would inflict long-term damage to a critical sage grouse population, scare off nesting golden eagles and potentially destroy the groundwater resources for an extensive area surrounding the project site.”

He said construction activity should be halted until the Ninth Circuit can review the appeal.

“It is essential that (deciding where to place) mining operations be done carefully, judiciously, and in a manner that allows for the full range of consequences of the proposed mine to be fully explored and addressed, unlike for the Thacker Pass mine.” — John Hadder, director of Reno-based Great Basin Resource Watch.

Among the plaintiff’s claims are allegations that the Thacker Pass Mine was approved within a sage grouse Priority Habitat Management Area, and the mine will de-water aquifers that feed the handful of desert springs inhabited by a rare springsnail – the Kings River pyrg – that is found nowhere else in the world.

Some Northern Nevada tribes also oppose the project, which is near the site of an 1865 massacre by Nevada volunteer cavalry troopers of 31 men, women and children who were camped near Thacker Pass.

“Our hearts are heavy hearing the decision that Judge Du did not revoke the permits for the Thacker Pass Lithium Mine,” the People of Red Mountain, indigenous land and culture protectors, wrote in a statement in reaction to the court’s Feb. 6 ruling. “ Indigenous people’s sacred sites should not be at the expense of the climate crisis the US faces. Destroying Peehee Mu’huh (Thacker Pass) is like cultural genocide.”

John Hadder, director of Reno-based Great Basin Resource Watch, said allowing the mine project to move forward while the appeal is pending sets “a dangerous  precedent…   To ensure that all is done to prevent avoidable enormous damage to  the Thacker Pass region it is essential that the mine permit is vacated.”

Hadder said in the rush to eliminate fossil fuels, alternative energy sources must be judged with care: “It is essential that (the placement) of mining operations be done carefully, judiciously, and in a manner that allows for the full range of consequences of the proposed mine to be fully explored and addressed, unlike for the Thacker Pass mine,” he said.

According to Lithium Nevada Corporation’s Plans of Operation, the mine would entail:

    •  excavation of a large open pit roughly 2.3 miles long by about half a mile at the widest

    •  removal of up to 17.2 million tons of rock and ore per year

    •  direct surface disturbance of 5,694 acres (total project size would be 17,933 acres)

    •  on-site sulfuric acid plant – up to 5,800 tons of acid per day

    •  ultimately pumping up to 1.7 billion gallons of water per year

    •  estimated active surface mining for 41 years, and 5 years of reclamation.

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  1. I am appalled at lack of concern for land, air, and life on the part of the BLM. That land is the last of the wide open wild spaces in the world. It’s forever lost every time a bull dozer touches it. How short-sighted can we and the BLM be? Who will care about a lithium battery in 300 years?

  2. Seems unsustainable to me. It would have to be a total emergency to make sense to inflict all that environmental damage over more than 40 years.

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