Proposed lithium mine in Nevada would damage ancestral lands, critics say
This story is part of a collaborative series, “At the Crossroads,” from the Institute for Nonprofit News, Indian Country Today, Underscore and eight other news partners, examining the state of the economy in Indian Country. This reporting was made possible with support from the Walton Family Foundation.
NORTHERN NEVADA – On maps it’s labeled Thacker Pass, an area nestled between the Montana and Double H mountains in a sagebrush desert near the Oregon-Nevada border.
To the Paiute people, however, it’s Peehee mu’huh, or rotten moon, for its crescent shape and ugly history. It’s one of the few remaining places where tribal citizens can still gather traditional foods such as chokecherries and wild potatoes, and medicines such as toza root, or honor their ancestors at the site where 31 Paiute people were massacred by government soldiers in 1865.
The area is also home to the largest known lithium deposit in the United States and one of the largest in the world — a cache of naturally occurring metal that could hold the future to development of green energy in the U.S.
Lithium Americas, the parent company of the Lithium Nevada Corp., says lithium from the area’s clay deposits is needed to make the batteries for electric cars, to cut America’s reliance on the fossil fuel industry. Lithium is particularly prized because it is lightweight, can store lots of energy and has a long lifespan before recharging.
The company has proposed an open-pit lithium mine at Thacker Pass, which would be only the second lithium mine in the U.S. The other, the Silver Peak Mine, is much smaller and has been operating since the 1960s.
The 18,000-acre Thacker Pass mine would reach into ancestral lands of the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribes, the Burns Paiute Tribe, Reno Sparks Indian Colony and the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes of Duck Valley Indian Reservation.
Several of the tribes, along with environmental groups and others, say the mine would wreck their land, resources and culture, depleting or poisoning water supplies, destroying sacred sites, degrading wildlife habitat and leaving behind hazardous waste.
The mine proposal is now tangled up in court, pitting some tribal citizens against others, green energy advocates against other environmentalists, and communities against their neighbors.
It’s perhaps a sign of things to come. With the pressure to transition away from fossil fuels, more projects like the Thacker Pass proposal are expected to emerge across the U.S. along with the environmental concerns they bring.
“We’re really at the beginning of a massive transformation,” said Max Wilbert, a non-Native environmental activist with a group known as Protect Thacker Pass.
Lithium Americas, however, said that it “respects the rights, culture, aspirations, and interests of Indigenous Peoples affected by the development of Thacker Pass,” but that so far its archaeological excavation work has revealed no major cultural finds.
“Lithium Nevada is committed to building an environmentally responsible project and spent more than 10 years conducting exploration as well as the environmental and cultural studies necessary for the state and federal permitting processes,” according to Maria Anderson, Lithium Nevada’s community relations manager.
“In addition to providing widespread benefits in the fight against climate change,” Anderson said, “the local benefits to the community are exciting.”
Pushing for green energy
The mine proposal comes amid a push from the federal government to produce more lithium in the U.S. as part of its overall goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
President Joe Biden has said the country is too reliant on foreign sources for minerals such as cobalt and lithium that are crucial to powering electric vehicles. Last year, the Biden administration called for an increase in domestic mining and production of materials to bolster the electric car and renewable energy supply chain.
Although discussions about the area’s rich store of lithium date back to the 1970s, Lithium Americas did not propose the mine project until 2019.
The mine, which would sit on land overseen by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, received the final green light from that agency in January 2021, though the decision is being challenged in court. The approval came despite a conclusion by the agency that the mine would threaten nearly 60 culturally or historically significant sites, mostly Indigenous obsidian tool-making or habitation sites.
Earlier this year, in February, the company said Nevada authorities had approved all of the required state-level permits.
Lithium Americas says the Thacker Pass mine will help fulfill the U.S. mission to produce lithium at home, and would be an economic boon to Nevada, generating an expected $650 million in spending, increased tax revenue and hundreds of jobs over the more than 40 years that the mine is expected to operate.
Benefits are already being dangled before the local communities. On the Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation, a 35,000-acre expanse that stretches across Nevada and into Oregon, a new community and daycare center would be funded, along with road improvements, “green” homes and access to jobs at vastly higher wages than most tribal citizens now earn.
But those developments depend on tribal leaders coming to an agreement with the mining company to allow the mine to proceed, and many tribal citizens have resisted the proposal.
The debate over the mine has divided the community for more than a year at Fort McDermitt, where nearly 40 percent of residents live in poverty. The latest offer from the mining company is an economic benefits package similar to one that the tribal council canceled last year amid pushback from citizens.
Lawsuits and protest camps
Opposition to the mine comes from a diverse collection of environmental groups, tribal governments, ranchers and Indigenous people, generating two federal lawsuits that have been consolidated into one.
A broad coalition sued to stop the project in U.S. District Court in Nevada, saying it would have negative consequences for water supplies, that it would threaten wildlife such as golden eagles and sage grouse, that the federal government’s review process was improperly rushed and that the government failed to properly consult with affected tribes.
The Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, which joined the Burns Paiute Tribe in the federal lawsuit to stop the mine, said survey and archaeological work has been done without their consultation or participation.
“These sites hold the history, culture and ancestors of the Great Basin Tribes,” Reno-Sparks Chairman Arlan Melendez said in a statement. “This lithium mine stands in the way of our roots and it’s violating the religious freedoms of our elders, our people.”
U.S. District Judge Miranda Du, who is presiding over the case, recently rejected an attempt from the Winnemucca Indian Colony to join the lawsuit.
In the same lawsuit, tribes also raised the connection to the 1865 massacre, saying the mine would operate at the site of the massacre of the Paiute people. They have cited the history of the area, including the massacre and events that led to it, in pushing for Thacker Pass to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The federal judge, citing insufficient evidence that the massacre occurred at the mine site or that the remains of those massacred were buried in the proposed mining area, has rejected the claims and allowed the company to proceed with archaeological excavation to determine what cultural artifacts may be at the site. The company says it expects a ruling in the case this fall that would allow it to move ahead with construction.
In a motion filed April 4, however, the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony said the BLM had improperly withheld about 40,000 pages of documents related to approval of the project despite a court order requiring it to release the information.
The tribe contends the documents show the agency conducted inadequate consultation with tribal nations — sending a single letter to three tribes — and obscured the BLM’s concerns that important cultural sites “would pretty much be destroyed by the project.”
“The BLM has broken the law,” said Will Falk, attorney for the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and co-founder of Protect Thacker Pass. “They have lied to the tribes, lied to the public, and lied to the court.”
A grassroots opposition group called the People of Red Mountain, formed by Fort McDermitt citizens, says Thacker Pass is important to Paiute and Shoshone people historically and today.
In a November video describing People of Red Mountain’s mission, one of its organizers, Daranda Hinkey, said the group was formed after hearing about the project and an anticipated surge of lithium mining in the U.S.
She said the promise of saving the environment through widespread use of electric vehicles is false because mining for the minerals to power the cars would leave damaged land for hundreds of years.
“They will never ever be able to repair this area. It will never look the same. It will never be reclaimed. It has irreparable harm,” Hinkey said. “What we see here is destruction of the lands, contamination of the water and complete cultural genocide to the Indigenous people here.”
People of Red Mountain organizers also believe “man camps” made up of mine or construction workers would form, putting a strain on law enforcement and worsening the crisis of disappearances, murders and sexual violence in Indigenous communities.
People of Red Mountain set up a protest camp near the site of the proposed mine, as did the Protect Thacker Pass organization. Both have since abandoned their camps for now, with People of Red Mountain saying in January that it was seeking to organize opposition in other ways while also strategizing resistance to another potential lithium mine in the same McDermitt Caldera just across the border in Oregon.
While the current lawsuit seeks only to delay the project, the ultimate goal of the Protect Thacker Pass group is to halt the project altogether through litigation and advocacy efforts, said Wilbert, one of its organizers.
“We are absolutely opposed to this project,” he said. “We do want to stop it from happening.”
The National Congress of American Indians has also voiced opposition, calling for the federal government to reverse its approval of the mine in a June 2021 resolution. Echoing other critics, the NCAI said the federal government had conducted inadequate consultation with affected tribal governments and failed to consult with all tribes with ties to the area.
Lithium Americas takes concerns about sacred Indigenous sites seriously, an official said, and wants to work with those worried about potential impacts.
The company, local communities and law enforcement are also working to create a code of conduct that employees and contractors would have to follow to address concerns about increased crime stemming from an influx of workers to the area, according to the company.
Lithium Americas chose the site for the mine to avoid disrupting more sensitive areas after spending more than a decade conducting research, cultural studies and obtaining permits, officials said.
More opposition is likely across the country, however.
While Thacker Pass is the first lithium mine to draw tribal opposition in the U.S., tribal nations and Indigenous groups have opposed at least two other mining projects — a copper and nickel mine in Michigan and a proposed copper mine in Arizona — over impacts to culturally important land, according to MSCI, a financial services company whose work includes research on environmental, social and corporate governance.
Angelique EagleWoman, a professor at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law and director of its Native American Law and Sovereignty Institute, said mining and other extraction projects and the federal government have a history of disregarding tribal concerns about projects on federal lands.
Lithium, she said, is “the new development.”
Although Biden has said he wants to transition from fossil fuels and source more of the materials needed for green energy expansion domestically, his administration has also signaled that it wants to do a better job upholding treaty and trust obligations.
EagleWoman is hopeful that means tribes will have a greater role in vetting and approving mining proposals on public lands that are important to tribal nations. That could lead to scaling back mining proposals or even abandoning them altogether and “moving to the next one,” she said.
“We need a process that brings in the trust responsibility and the treaty obligations of the United States,” she said. “Otherwise, it’s just continuing to … eliminate the culture and spirituality and subsistence lifestyles of the Indigenous people in their homelands.”
The mine has also divided the local agricultural community. Rancher Hank Kershner, who operates a cow-calf operation near McDermitt, welcomes the temporary and long-term jobs promised by the mine.
But Edward Bartell, who ranches on land outside of Orovada, worries about the operation’s impact on the water table. He is among those who sued to stop the mine.
Lithium Americas appears to be operating under the assumption that the mine will move forward, with archeological surveys underway along with efforts to convince local residents the project will be good for their communities.
The company has partnered with Great Basin College in Elko, Nevada, to launch a job training program for those interested in working at the mine. It has also partnered with local heavy equipment dealers to hold in-the-field training, according to the company. One of those sessions took place on the Fort McDermitt reservation, where participants were trained and certified to operate machinery such as excavators and dump trucks. The company said it is planning a similar event for this spring.
And at the request of the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribes, the company recently hosted a seminar for tribal citizens interested in observing archaeological excavations as they proceed.
Humboldt County Manager Dave Mendiola said the region has a deep mining history, led by gold mines, which are the area’s largest operations. When fully staffed and operating, the lithium mine would be one of the county’s largest employers, he said.
But the area is dealing with a housing shortage, which could worsen with the arrival of the mine and with the expected opening of a planned salmon farm. Mendiola said people looking to move to the area for work already struggle to find housing, prompting some homebuilders to step up the pace of construction.
Humboldt County’s population is less than 20,000; its biggest town has 8,000 residents.
“It’s kind of an exciting time,” Mendiola said. “But it also, quite frankly, scares the hell out of me because we need a lot of homes.”
The proposed mine would likely benefit ancillary businesses and workers supporting or supplying the mine, Mendiola said. He hopes the increasing number of good-paying jobs keeps younger generations from leaving the area, or convinces them to return after getting a college degree in a field such as engineering that could lead to a mining job.
The median household income on the Fort McDermitt reservation is about $16,000, according to U.S. Census data. The mining company has said its median wage would be about $63,000 a year. The reservation has an unemployment rate of nearly 18 percent.
About 340 people live on the reservation, according to Census data, and the roughly 500 residents in the nearby community of McDermitt are predominantly Indigenous.
The company says about 50 tribal members have contacted the company asking about jobs during the construction and operation phase of the mine.
Mendiola said the county will be watching the work if it begins — particularly heavy truck traffic on local highways en route to the mine — but he said Lithium Americas has done a good job working with the local community and its leaders. He believes the company and federal government took the appropriate “due diligence” in the permitting process.
“We’re going to be watching very closely, to make sure they do all the right things, and if they don’t, we’ll be the first ones to raise our hand and complain,” he said.
Difficult decision ahead
Under previous tribal leadership at Fort McDermitt, the tribe agreed to an engagement agreement with Lithium Americas in the hopes that the company would invest in the tribe’s workforce and lead to other economic stimulus for the area.
The community of Orovada is the closest to the 18,000-acre mine site, with Fort McDermitt next in line.
But in April 2021, the Fort McDermitt tribal council voted to cancel its agreement with the company. Tribal citizens presented a petition to the council asking it to abandon the agreement and launch a lawsuit to stop the mine proposal.
Elwood Hinkey, a former silver and gold miner, Fort McDermitt tribal elder and Daranda Hinkey’s grandfather, is opposed to lithium mining at Thacker Pass. He said he helped create signs for People of Red Mountain to raise awareness about the proposed mine.
As he moved bales of hay into an enclosure for his cattle on tribal lands in early March, Hinkey said he is worried the mine will deplete the area’s water table and that winds would carry chemicals used in mining operations over to the tribal community.
“Our elected officials are not doing what they are supposed to,” he said. “They should listen to tribal members that put them in office.”
Tribal citizens have protested outside of tribal headquarters and elsewhere, and organized a 273-mile prayer run to raise awareness about the mine.
But not everyone is opposed to it. Alana Crutcher, a tribal citizen and a former mining industry worker of 17 years, supports the proposal.
In a 2021 sworn statement filed in federal court in defense of the mining proposal, Crutcher said she and other family members have benefited over the years from mining jobs and from the benefits, such as tuition assistance, provided by mining companies.
She said she felt that Lithium Americas had invested enough time and engagement with the tribe in recent years for her to feel comfortable that they would be good neighbors.
“I’m confident that the Thacker Pass project will help sustain our tribal community, support the livelihoods of our tribal citizens, and promote prosperity and opportunity for countless families,” she said in the court document.
Crutcher could not be reached for comment, and other tribal citizens who have spoken out about the proposed mine likewise did not respond to requests for comment. Tribal Chairwoman Maxine Redstar could not be reached for comment, either.
But it appeared as of late March that tribal support for the mine may be back on the table, with the tribe facing a decision about whether to reverse its position yet again.
This time, the “community benefits” package is in the mix.
Under the terms of the proposed package, the company has pledged to employ tribal citizens and guarantee continued workforce training in exchange for the tribe’s support for the mine, according to the company and a flyer distributed on the reservation.
The company also has agreed to build a needed community center and daycare facility on the reservation that would make it easier for parents to accept jobs, and would pay for road and drainage improvements and a “green” housing program. A seed bank and nursery for plants with medicinal and other value is also being discussed, officials said.
And the company has taken tribal leaders and citizens to mine sites in New Mexico to show them examples of how it believes mines can be good partners with tribal nations.
But it remains unclear when or if the tribal council could vote on the proposal, though the company said a community meeting to discuss the company’s offer and garner feedback was being considered.
“We value the relationship we have with the Fort McDermitt Tribe,” said Anderson, with Lithium Americas, “and have maintained an active dialogue to ensure we understand and accommodate the community needs they have identified.”
Opponents, however, are not convinced the benefits would outweigh the destruction.
Wilbert, with Protect Thacker Pass, said supporting the mine for a few decades’ worth of jobs is shortsighted and that the push to extract lithium to power electric vehicles is a “false solution” to climate change.
“Thacker Pass is not a long-term solution for the people of the region,” he said. “It’s a mine that plans to come in, destroy the area for 50 years and then leave behind toxic land and water for generations after that.”
Alex Milan Tracy contributed to this report.
FEATURED IMAGE: Rancher Edward Bartell stands by a fence blocking access to the Thacker Pass mine site outside of Orovada, Nevada, on March 11, 2022. Bartell filed a federal lawsuit in February 2021 challenging the federal government’s approval of the mine, which would extract lithium from the area. (Photo by Alex Milan Tracy for Underscore)
This story is part of a collaboration from INN’s Rural News Network in partnership with INN members Indian Country Today, Buffalo’s Fire, InvestigateWest,KOSU, New Mexico In Depth, Underscore and Wisconsin Watch, as well as partners Mvskoke Media, Osage News and Rawhide Press. Series logo by Mvskoke Creative. The project was made possible with support from the Walton Family Foundation.
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