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Tribes, environmentalists move to block Thacker Pass lithium mine construction

Daniel Rothberg
Daniel Rothberg

Native American tribes and environmental groups have filed new legal actions challenging the  permits for the Thacker Pass lithium mine and seeking to halt construction pending appeals. 

The new legal filings respond to a federal district court decision earlier this month that largely affirmed the government’s environmental permit for the mine north of Winnemucca that sits on one of the largest lithium deposits in North America

In the court order, U.S. District Court Judge Miranda M. Du upheld the mine’s permit but ordered federal land managers to revisit one aspect of the it — whether the mining company Lithium Americas had the right, under a federal mining law, to dump waste materials on public land. 

On Tuesday, four environmental groups filed an emergency motion with the court, seeking an injunction to pause mine construction while Du’s decision is appealed. 

The groups — Western Watersheds Project, Great Basin Resource Watch, Basin and Range Watch and WildLands Defense — said the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals must be given the opportunity to revisit the lower court’s order not to vacate the federal permit “in the face of immediate and irreparable environmental harm.” 

The legal filing says mine construction could start as soon as next week. 

The groups argued that federal land managers have not complied — and may not be able to comply — with Du’s order to revisit part of the environmental permit to determine whether Lithium Americas holds valid mining claims to occupy public land for a waste dump. 

In a statement, Talasi Brooks, a staff attorney for the Western Watersheds Project said “there’s no evidence that [Lithium Americas] 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” without an injunction.

The Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, the Burns Paiute Tribe and the Summit Lake Paiute Tribe also filed a separate lawsuit Thursday challenging the environmental permits for the mine and the permitting process under the National Historic Preservation Act. They argued the new lawsuit would allow Native American tribes to present evidence not considered in the first case. 

Federal land managers, the lawsuit alleges, withheld information from the Nevada State Historic Preservation Tribes and did not conduct appropriate government-to-government consultation with Native American tribes or adequately consider the Indigenous oral histories of the area. 

“Our traditional ways require we live in reciprocity with all other things and never put ourselves as feeble humans above others,” Diane Teeman, chairperson of the Burns Paiute Tribe and the director of the culture and heritage department, said in a statement. “For this reason, our unwritten traditional tribal law requires we do everything in our power to protect it.” 

In correspondence with the federal government, the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony has said that Thacker Pass is eligible to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, according to the lawsuit. Thacker Pass, known as Peehee Mu’huh in Paiute, or “rotten moon,” is held sacred by the three Native American tribes as the site of a massacre that took place in 1865.

Since the permit was issued in 2020, environmental groups, Indigenous communities and local ranchers have raised concerns about the mine permit’s impact on habitat for imperiled species, local rural communities and cultural areas. The district court said it found many of these arguments unpersuasive, deferring to the expertise of federal land managers. 

Tim Crowley, vice president of government affairs and community relations for the mine Lithium Americas, said in an emailed statement Tuesday that “we are proud of the work we have done to get Thacker Pass permitted allowing us to build a responsible project. The courts have agreed that we’re doing this right. We look forward to constructing Thacker Pass to meet our nation’s needs.” 

The lithium mine Thacker Pass is developing at the base of the Montana Mountains is thought to sit on a huge lithium deposit. The project comes at a time when the federal government has placed emphasis on developing domestic sources of lithium. Last month, General Motors announced a $650 million investment in developing Thacker Pass. 


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