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The Nevada Independent

'We’re just somebody little:' Amid plans to mine lithium deposit, Indigenous, rural communities find themselves at the center of the energy transition

Daniel Rothberg
Daniel Rothberg
Environment
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Maxine Redstar’s office on the Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation sits in a valley surrounded by mineral-rich mountain ranges that stretch past the Oregon border, only a few miles to the north. 

It’s May, and after a short spurt of precipitation in an otherwise record dry year for Nevada, the valley has turned pastel-green with sagebrush dotting the land. Near the administration building and Redstar’s office, a sign is planted in the ground. It reads: “Keep Your Aboriginal Rights!!”

Redstar, as chairwoman of the Fort McDermitt Paiute Shoshone Tribe, is at the center of a fight over a planned lithium mine in Thacker Pass, Peehee mu’huh in Paiute. Part-administrator and part-spokesperson, her phone rings often, and documents are scattered across her desk.

Long before Redstar heard of Thacker Pass, she was following the national news about clean energy. Now the news has come home. The rural communities that encircle Thacker Pass, the site of a major lithium mine, are at the frontlines of an energy transition from climate-warming fuels, coal mining and combustible engines to solar energy, lithium mining and electric vehicles. 

The project, approved by federal land managers in January, spans 17,933 acres. Some of that land will be used for exploration. The mine itself — an open pit and processing facilities — would be built on about 5,545 acres of federal public land with an expected lifespan of 41 years.

For many residents, one mine is enough of a concern. But several companies have mineral rights in the area, clear into Oregon, and this sparsely-populated section of the Great Basin could soon become a booming mining district. There is exploration for gold too, Redstar notes. 

“We see on this mountainside here, they’re doing exploratory drilling,” Redstar said. “Well, they found gold. So now what? Where are we going to be sitting ten, fifteen years from now?”

Indigenous peoples have relied on Thacker Pass for food and traditional medicine, including toza root and old-growth sagebrush, which is used to make tea. Last month, a group of tribal members opposing the mine wrote a public statement about the land’s spiritual significance. 

“In addition to environmental concerns, Thacker Pass is sacred to our people,” they wrote. “Thacker Pass is a spiritually powerful place blessed by the presence of our ancestors, other spirits, and golden eagles – who we consider to be directly connected to the Creator.”

After federal land managers approved the mine in January, members of tribes from across the Great Basin began visiting the mine site, where protesters have set-up a 24/7 encampment. 

In the months since Redstar was seated as the tribal chairwoman in December 2019, she has followed through on a petition, signed by tribal members, to disengage with Lithium Americas, the company behind the Thacker Pass mine, which was fast-tracked through an environmental review process during COVID-19. But state and federal officials have backed the project — and it is a major deposit, projected to yield 66,000 tons of lithium per year when fully operational. 

“We’re just somebody little that’s trying to preserve what we have,” Redstar said last month. “Do we stand a chance? You know, that’s the big question. We’re going to give it our best shot.”

Redstar’s rhetoric is measured, and she tries to approach issues with an open mind, having to balance the interests of all tribal members. She said “there’s a mix” of opinions about the mine, with one group pushing to prioritize the economic opportunity that lithium extraction might offer.

“I’m not going to put a price on culture,” she said. “I’m not going to put a price on tradition. But we’re a small tribe. We’re an indigent tribe. So it’s hard to balance. It’s hard to balance that.”

“I respect the voice of our older members of the tribe,” Redstar added. “But I also have young people that are looking for guidance, that are looking toward being here for a very long time.”

Maxine Redstar, chairwoman of the Fort McDermitt Paiute Shoshone Tribe, stands in front of the tribe’s office building on May 19, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

In the communities closest to the mine, opinions about the project range from active opposition to quiet support. Many people are resigned, feeling that the mine can’t be stopped, that their concerns are small in the national push to secure a domestic lithium supply chain for batteries.

Everyone is watching for what happens next. There is little doubt the mine is going to change the area. The small town of Orovada sits at the base of the Santa Rosa Range and straddles both sides of U.S. 95. Almost every truck going to Thacker Pass has to travel through Orovada, where there is a gas station (with an electric-vehicle charger), a community center and a school.

Driving through Thacker Pass, cars often come to a halt to let cattle cross the highway. On the other side of the pass, the one-lane road becomes unpaved and rough. The road opens up into Kings River Valley, an agricultural community that sits at the base of the Montana Mountains. 

The mine will bring in dozens of trucks to haul rock and chemicals. Workers will be bussed into the area from Winnemucca about 65 miles away. Parents are worried about traffic (exiting U.S. 95 is unsafe and local residents say transportation officials have done little to help). To deal with safety, the mine has offered to pay to relocate Orovada’s K-8 school. Given the costs for land and new construction, estimates for the new school range from about $10 to $12 million. 

Ranchers are worried about water and wildlife. One rancher is taking his concerns to court and challenging the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s decision to approve the mine. A coalition of environmental groups filed a similar lawsuit, a case that has led to a delay in excavation plans.

“People don’t live out here for any other reason than just the fact that it’s peace, it’s quiet,” said Stacey Edwards, part of a concerned citizens group and a fifth-generation Nevada rancher who is raising her family in Orovada. “There’s not a van or a car that drives by that you don’t know.”

“It’s going to change a lot of our everyday lives,” she added.

Dusty Edwards moves an irrigation pipe in the morning hours with his son, Rhett, on May 19, 2021. He says this is one of the driest seasons on record. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

A small community, and that’s fine

The signs of a changing climate are everywhere this year. Drought has made it harder to earn a living as a rancher in the Great Basin, an environment where water was already scarce. On a morning in May, Dusty Edwards, Stacey’s husband, moves an irrigation line with his son Rhett.

This is one of the worst drought years Dusty can recall, and it’s critical to use water wisely. 

Stacey Edwards, born and raised in Orovada, met Dusty Edwards in Boise. They moved back to Orovada to raise their family, and Dusty took a job ranching with Stacey’s father, Ron Cerri. She said that sometimes she feels her kids are missing out on the opportunities that other kids have in big cities. But growing up as part of a ranching family in Orovada, she says, can make a person.

“You have to be self-sustainable,” she said. “You have to know how to take care of yourself.”

Her daughter Addyson gets up early to feed her horse and two steers, hauling red buckets out to them before she goes to the Orovada School, the same school Stacey went to. Addyson also feeds five dogs and two cats. Her horse is named Mandy. The steers are Bingo and Angus. 

“We’re not going to stop it,” Stacey said of the mine at Thacker Pass, which is across the valley. “There’s not a person in this world that can convince me that we are. I think that the need for it is there. I understand that the need for it is there. But you have to be able to also live with it.”

The Orovada School on April 27, 2021. The mining company has offered to relocate and rebuild the school because of traffic concerns. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Edwards is a member of Thacker Pass Concerned Citizens, a community group formed by local residents of Orovada and Kings River Valley. The group has organized regular public meetings at the community center gym. State environmental regulators have presented at the meetings to go over the permitting process — so have the county superintendent and mine representatives.

The meetings can get testy, and skepticism is often expressed in the form of questions. In late April, when an executive from a trucking company, Savage Services, came to talk about their practices for hauling molten sulfur, local residents peppered him with a long list of questions. 

It turns out, according to a fact sheet Savage Services left at a check-in table for the meeting, the company’s trucks transport about three million tons of molten sulfur each year. Its truck drivers, according to the fact-sheet, receive extensive training in safely transporting sulfur.

Yet residents have qualms about commercial trucks driving sulfur down U.S. 95 — where cars speed and there is no safe turning lane into Orovada. Once the sulfur reaches Thacker Pass, the mining company plans to make sulfuric acid needed to process the mined rock. For many, the sulfur plant, which requires a state air quality permit, gives them more pause than the mine.

The day after the meeting about trucking sulfur, Ron Cerri is sitting at home, getting ready to put out mineral supplements for his herd and visit his daughter’s family. Cerri is serving his second term on the Humboldt County Commission, and residents in the Orovada area often approach him with their concerns. The chemical plant, he said, “really has everyone’s attention.”

“It’s not so much the mine,” he said. “That’s my opinion, anyway.”

The community is grappling with how to move forward. The public meetings are a way to sort through their issues, and Terry Crawforth has taken on much of the work of organizing them.

Crawforth lives in Kings River Valley, and his home is one of the closest to the mine. Sitting on his porch, he gestures to the Montana Mountains behind him, the range where the mine would be located. It’s the mountains that prompted him to move here from Sparks after 42 years at the Nevada Department of Wildlife, including a term as director. The mountains are rich with wildlife.

In January, the state wildlife agency wrote in a comment letter that it believes the plan “will likely result in adverse impacts to wildlife, ground and surface waters, and riparian vegetation within and outside the project area. These impacts include effects to an array of species and will likely have permanent ramifications on the area’s wildlife and habitat resources.”

As local residents started to gather information, Crawforth said “the more concerned people got” about everything from air quality and wildlife to the school and transportation. He helped form the citizens group to advocate for residents. If the mine is coming, they want to be at the table.

Terry Crawforth, a former director of the Nevada Department of Wildlife, gestures to the base of the Montana Mountains from his home on April 18, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

For someone who wears a shirt that says “CAUTION GRUMPY OLD MAN,” he shows few signs of grumpiness. He is affable on a warm Sunday morning, and has a good sense of humor. 

It’s not only this one mine. Local residents, he said, are concerned with what happens when more lithium claims are developed. There are claims throughout the Montana Mountains, and some of them are held by Lithium Americas. The company, for its part, has pledged to avoid blasting at higher elevations, where there is critical habitat for the iconic Greater sage-grouse (wildlife managers, Crawforth notes, call the Montana Mountains the “sage-grouse holy land”).

But people are skeptical of that promise. If demand for lithium continues rising, Crawforth and others believe there is going to be immense pressure to mine claims throughout the area. 

State government officials view lithium mining as an economic opportunity, but residents said they are doing little to offset the effects on communities taking the brunt for the greater good.

“If you want to be the lithium capital of the world,” he said, “there’s a cost to that.”

“I think people here feel like they are treated like, ‘Well, it’s just a bunch of country bumpkins out in the wastelands in Nevada,’” Crawforth said. “And these people are not dummies. They have made a living for 150 years in some pretty harsh environment, actually.”

Down the street, Wendelyn and Martin Muratore have breakfast ready — homemade bacon, string hash browns, pancakes and eggs. They originally moved to Kings River Valley after living in California, but they still go back from time to time: They ship hay to organic dairies north of San Francisco. Hunters regularly stay with them when they get tags in the Montana Mountains.

Neither of them want to see the mine go in. Wendelyn has joined Great Basin Resource Watch, the mine watchdog group suing over the fast-tracked environmental review. And Martin rejects the mentality many state and county politicians have, especially in Winnemucca — that if you are not growing as a community, you’re dying. In the valley, he said, people don’t think that way.

“I don’t want any growth,” he says. “There’s no water for it, no need for it.”

Martin Muratore, who farms in Kings River Valley, grades his field with a tractor on April 28, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

A climate crisis and a lithium boom

Thacker Pass sits at the southern edge of the McDermitt Caldera, a vast geologic structure — the remnant of an extinct supervolcano that erupted roughly 16 million years ago. For decades, companies eyed this caldera in and around the Montana Mountains for minerals. First, Chevron came looking for uranium in the 1970s, and then, in the 1980s, the company turned to a search for lithium.

By the mid-2000s, exploration in the area kicked off again. Lithium Americas eventually picked up where Chevron had left off, assessing the feasibility of mining lithium from the volcanic clay. 

During the nearly fifteen years since the company restarted exploration in the area, the global dynamics around lithium mining have changed. In 2015, the United States and other countries adopted the Paris Agreement as a global response to climate change. Since then, carmakers have committed to putting more electric vehicles on the road, driving up demand for lithium.

Today, Jonathan Evans, president and CEO of Lithium Americas, says young engineers contact him on LinkedIn every week. They want to work in an industry focused on climate change. 

“This isn’t a gold mine,” he said in an interview. “This isn’t an oil refinery. It’s something [where] they can utilize their skill-sets, utilize their smarts, to address an issue that is dear to them.”

Quietly, over the past several years, the company has built-up its physical infrastructure within the state and has made in-roads with politicians. The company has an office in Winnemucca and two spaces in Reno — one is a process testing plant in a non-discrete one-story building. 

A Lithium Americas pilot plant technician shovels tailings into a bin after they went through a lithium extraction process at the company’s test plant in Reno on May 12, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Technicians at the testing facility put ore from Thacker Pass through mechanical and chemical processes to separate the lithium material from the clay. The process relies on methods that the company says are meant to reduce acid use and are less intensive than other types of mining. 

Lithium Americas, in its mine plan documents, has emphasized that the company is working to be as efficient as possible with their ore, acid use and energy. At the testing facility, water and materials are squeezed out of the ore to the point that unused rock, or tailings, are bone-dry. 

On the mine site, the company plans to operate a steam turbine and generate electricity using excess heat from the sulfur plant. Some of that electricity would be exported back to the grid. 

Lithium Americas has also built out a political team. Last month, the New York Times reported that the company hired a D.C. lobbying firm that included a former Trump administration aide.

In January, Gov. Steve Sisolak touted lithium mining in his State of the State speech, arguing that “Nevada is home to the most accessible lithium reserves in North America.” The Sisolak administration has also offered financial support to the project. Last year, the Governor’s Office of Economic Development approved tax incentives worth about $8.6 million over 10 years. 

Those tax incentives frustrated some local residents who felt that the state should not forgo any revenue at a time when funding was needed to build infrastructure for increased mining activity.

According to Evans, the company plans to answer those concerns and reinvest the tax incentive in the local community. Evans said that “the benefits of that should flow to the community itself.”

Tim Crowley, the vice president for government and community relations for Lithium Americas’ Nevada division, speaks to a community meeting of concerned citizens in Orovada on April 27, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

At meetings in Orovada, Tim Crowley, the former head of the Nevada Mining Association, has represented the company. He serves as Lithium Americas’ vice president of government and community relations for its Nevada division, Lithium Nevada Corporation. 

In one meeting last month, as local residents and a group of protesters camping out at the mine grilled Crowely, he said the company’s internal canvassing had suggested widespread support.

“We know from canvassing this area and sponsoring the BuildNV program, that there are many people right from this community who are looking forward to this project,” Crowley said in April. 

One of those supporters is Loyd Sherburn, a rancher in Orovada who sold water rights to the mining company. If the economy needs more lithium, he would like to see mining done in the United States, where there are stricter environmental standards than in other countries. 

“I’m a firm believer that we should be energy [independent] in this country, and not dependent on someone else to shut something down because they go ‘Hey, we just took all the lithium from Argentina and you ain’t getting any more,’” Sherburn said. “So I see this project going in. I just want to see it done as environmentally-friendly and safely as we can for our community.” 

The process testing facility helped convince Sherburn that the company’s model was sound.

“If they can duplicate what they showed me there, my big concerns about dirty air and dirty water have pretty well gone out the window,” he said. “Yeah, I don’t have any concerns.”  

Sherburn has ranched in Orovada for more than four decades, and he understands where his neighbors are coming from. It’s on the top of everyone’s mind, and people are concerned about the changes the mine could bring. Sherburn said the mine might attract a few more people, but most workers, he thinks, will opt to live in Winnemucca. As for him, he plans on staying in town. 

“As long as I’m alive, I plan on living and dying here,” he said.

Illyssa Fogel, the owner of the Diamond A Motel in McDermitt, a town next to the Oregon border and near the Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation, is another supporter of the mine. The proposal didn’t come as a surprise to her, either. Geologists have been staying at her motel for years.

Fogel, who has a law degree, was raised in the Reno-area, and she is worried about the effects of climate change. When Fogel bought the motel in the early 2000s, she had been living in Los Angeles. But having grown up in Nevada, she saw an opportunity for the border town to grow. 

Illyssa Fogel, owner of the Double A Motel in McDermitt on May 19, 2021. Fogel supports the economic opportunities that the mine could bring to the small town. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

At the time, in the early 2000s when she purchased the motel and moved to McDermitt, Fogel was interested in developing a casino (Fogel had worked in casinos and also had been a lawyer for the Gaming Control Board). At one point, she owned the bar across the street from the motel. But her efforts to grow the town hit roadblocks. Now with a lithium mine coming, Fogel said she sees a new opportunity for economic growth — while tackling the climate crisis. 

She has seen the climate change in the area, with warmer winters and warmer summers.

“It's my understanding that this is one of the largest, if not the second largest, lithium reserve on the planet, and certainly the biggest supposedly in the Northern Hemisphere,” Fogel said. “Why aren't we working on getting this out and getting rid of carbon emissions and all that kind of stuff?” 

Lithium Americas also found an unexpected ally in Glenn Miller, a founder of Great Basin Resource Watch, one of the environmental groups suing over the mine in federal court. Earlier this month, Miller resigned from the group's board of directors.

Miller, who spent much of his career criticizing the mining industry, said he supports the mine because the U.S. needs a domestic supply of lithium to address climate change, which he views as the most serious environmental threat facing the globe. Compared to mining methods used for gold, he argued that the processes Lithium Americas plans to use are far more “benign.”

"From the technical perspective, I think this is a good mine and mining a deposit that is really important for the country,” said Miller, who taught environmental science at UNR for decades.

“Most environmental issues are a question of values,” Miller said.

Eddie Smart stands in front of a former mercury mine near the Fort McDermitt Paiute Shoshone Tribe’s reservation on April 17, 2021. Smart is concerned about more mines coming to the area. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

A tribe cancels its engagement agreement

Mercury was discovered outside of McDermitt in the early-20th century and was mined through the 1980s. The quicksilver mines that worked the deposit now sit dormant across the valley from the Fort McDermitt Paiute Shoshone Tribe’s reservation. For years, the mines employed tribal members, bringing stable jobs but also leaving contaminated land and public health concerns. 

Eddie Smart’s father mined for mercury, and he recounts a detailed history of the mines. There was the Cordero Mine and the McDermitt Mine, both considered to be top producers of mercury when they were operational. Each mine left a significant footprint on land that was taken from the tribe. The narrow dirt road to the Cordero mine passes a massive rust-tinted mine pit.

“We’ve been put through the test,” he said. “We’re still surviving.” 

Earlier this year, Smart supported an effort to petition the tribal council to disengage with Lithium Americas. Under previous leadership, the tribe’s chairman had entered into an agreement with the company, even before federal land managers finished the mine permitting process. Lithium Americas had pledged to invest in the tribe’s workforce and bring high-paying jobs to the area.

Several tribal elders and traditional members felt blindsided by the agreement. They, and many Paiute and Shoshone peoples from across the Great Basin, said they did not give their consent.

“There’s a lot of people that don’t like it,” Smart said of Thacker Pass. “Traditional people.”

Several tribal members, like Smart, had family members who worked in the mercury mines, and they said they know of former mine workers who had cancer. Redstar, the tribe’s chairwoman, said her grandfather and father worked in the Cordero mine, which went online in the 1930s. 

“My grandfather passed away from cancer, as did my grandmother,” Redstar said. “A lot of other family members passed away from that. It was unfortunate that the town, or whoever, did not inform them of the dangers of this, whereas now it’s a little different. You can go in and challenge that and say, ‘Hey, I want to know how harmful this is going to be.’”

A contamination warning sign in front of the Cordero Mine on April 17, 2021. The mine was built before stricter environmental regulations were put in place. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Evans, the president and CEO of Lithium Americas, notes that the mines permitted today must comply with much stricter environmental regulations, including water and air quality permitting.

“A lot of those mines were developed and permitted in a different time,” Evans said, when asked about the shuttered mercury mines. “A lot has changed since then from a regulatory standpoint, from a community right-to-know standpoint and just from a government standpoint in general.” 

The company says it remains focused on workforce development, and Evans wants economic benefits to go to tribal members. More than 40 tribal members have applied for jobs, he noted.

“We have ongoing dialogues with members of the tribe,” he said. “We’re committed to offer jobs to folks who want them and to offer the training required to be successful in those jobs as well.”

The Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation following a storm in an otherwise dry year on May 19, 2021. The reservation includes land in Nevada and Oregon. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Billy Bell, a tribal councilman, started getting involved with the project in February. He learned that the tribe had not submitted comments as part of the federal environmental review process. Bell is not sure why, but he noted that the comment process was going on during the pandemic.

“They’d pretty much had everything shut down,” Bell said after a community meeting in April. 

The environmental review, in certain areas, is vague, he said, and he has concerns about how federal land managers addressed cultural resources and water quality, considered alternatives and coordinated with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to discuss endangered species.

Bell said he has heard both opposition and support from tribal members. 

“I would generally say that it’s fairly equal,” he said. 

But Bell, who voted to disengage with Lithium Americas, said it was not only the protests that swayed his opinion. He learned that the tribe had entered into the project agreement with the mining company in 2019, almost a year before the environmental review was completed.

“I had no idea what discussions they had or what they told them,” Bell said.

After the Trump administration approved the environmental review for the mine in January, two protesters, Will Falk and Max Wilbert, set up a camp at the mine site. When they first arrived at Thacker Pass, snow covered the ground. They have camped out there ever since — sometimes together, sometimes trading off, sometimes attracting visitors from across Nevada and the West.

Wilbert and Falk oppose the mine in the strongest terms. They believe the energy transition is built on a false premise. For them, Thacker Pass encapsulates the environmental impacts of green energy: Is disturbing land and wildlife to mine lithium for electric vehicles truly clean?

“I feel pretty terrible because the planet’s being killed,” Wilbert said, walking near the camp. “But I also feel like we’re further along now than we imagined we would be. I mean, when we started this campaign, there was a big element of just jumping off a cliff for us, because it was literally Will and I hopping in our cars and driving out here to camp on the side of a mountain.”

Environmental activists Will Falk, left, and Max Willbert, right, stand in front of the encampment on May 18, 2021. They have helped organize tribal members to oppose the mine. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Over the past several months, Falk and Wilbert have launched a social media campaign that has attracted media attention from across the country. Falk wrote regular op-eds about their opposition to the mine that were published in The Sierra Nevada Ally, a regional nonprofit outlet. 

On the ground, Falk and Wilbert worked with tribal elders, and they have helped to organize a coalition that has included organizers from the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada.

On a Wednesday afternoon in mid-May, they are meeting with about a dozen tribal elders on the reservation. Elders and traditional members have formed a group known as the People of Red Mountain, Atsa koodakuh wyh Nuwu in Paiute. Falk, an attorney, has helped advise them.

Inelda Sam’s home, where the meeting takes place, is near the tribal offices on the reservation. Outside her home, wild horses are grazing by the road nearby. Sam sits at the end of a table next to Josephine Dick. The tribal elders said the protesters have provided important support.

“They’re supporting us,” Dick said. “So we’re supporting them too.”

Sam said that they are also getting support from Indigenous communities, long on the frontlines of mining, from across the region. The People of Red Mountain, Sam said, would like to see the tribal council do more to actively oppose the mining project. She is worried about the long-term impact that more mining will have on the community and the tribe’s traditional practices.

“Our future generations, our kids, grandkids,” she said. “That’s why we’re concerned.”

Tribal elders Inelda Sam, left, and Josephine Dick, right, talk about the spiritual significance of Thacker Pass and their opposition to the lithium mine on May 19, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Lewey Sam, a tribal member, said he does a lot of hunting at Thacker Pass. He said the mine is going to disrupt wildlife in the Montana Mountains, home to deer, sage-grouse and rabbit. Sam said that hunting there was a part of how he — and many other tribal members — were raised.

“That’s the way I was raised, and that’s the way it’s going to be as long as I’m alive,” he said.

Over the past several months, their opposition has gained more momentum with coverage from national media outlets. Earlier this month, several tribal members traveled to Reno for a protest with more than a hundred supporters. Brian Thomas, chairman of the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes of the Duck Valley Indian Reservation, was one of several leaders who spoke at the protest. 

Thomas said federal land managers, including the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, should have consulted with his tribe, and he hopes to raise the issue with Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland, who was sworn in earlier this year as the agency’s first Native American leader. 

“Believe me that we’re going to overcome this,” he said.

A dance after a peaceful protest against Thacker Pass in downtown Reno on June 12, 2021. The demonstration drew more than one-hundred supporters. (Daniel Rothberg/The Nevada Independent)

An encampment, meetings and lawsuits

The organizers of the Protect Thacker Pass camp plan to continue protesting at the mine site, and they are asking their supporters to be ready to block construction equipment. Even though mine construction could be many months away, Lithium Americas had been planning to begin initial excavations and diggings, associated with cultural resources work, as early as June 23.

As part of litigation brought by environmental groups this year, the company agreed to delay ground disturbance until at least July 29th while the court hears arguments for an injunction.

But Falk, at the June 12 rally in Reno, was already looking beyond the delay: “We really need people to consider whether they can come up to camp, whether they can come up to Thacker Pass to put their bodies on the frontlines in case we have to stop any sort of construction equipment from digging up cultural resources, from destroying the land at Thacker Pass.” 

Evans said that the company respects the right to protest.

“They’re free to protest — as we move forward as well — but as long as it doesn’t imperil the safety of our workers, the community or anyone else involved in the project,” Evans said.

But Lithium Americas remains committed to bringing the project online, and the company is finishing up state environmental permitting and state permitting to use its water rights. 

“Our hope is that in the first half of next year, we’re moving forward,” Evans said.

The company is now proactively reaching out to the community. It recently hired professional facilitators from a firm in Colorado to interview local residents about their concerns. Cerri, the Humboldt County Commissioner, has pushed for negotiating a Good Neighbors Agreement, a binding legal contract that would help the community hold the mining company accountable.

Cerri said he was glad to see Lithium Americas more engaged. When the company first came to discuss its plans and the mine’s impacts, some people in the community felt talked down to.

“They were trying to tell us what was best for us,” Cerri said. “We didn’t need to hear that.

Ron Cerri, a Humboldt County Commissioner, checking on cattle at the base of the Santa Rosa Mountain Range on April 28, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

“We had to push pretty hard to get them to start coming to some of these meetings,” Cerri said last month. “They still didn’t think we were serious. Then, of course, some of the efforts by the protesters out there have also benefited us in the respect that it’s gotten their attention, and I think they realize that they need the community’s support for this mine to be successful.”

Evans said the company wants to partner with the community and is willing to make upfront investments. He pointed to relocating the school as an example of that commitment.

“There were concerns about traffic and the school,” he noted. “We’ve already come forward [and] we’re interested in replacing that school and moving it, if that’s what’s needed.”

Even as the company makes more commitments, there is still distrust about the mine. 

Parents, county staff and educators gathered for a community meeting in mid-May to discuss plans to rebuild and relocate the school. Some worried that the school might not fix the larger issues associated with the mine — the concerns with more traffic and environmental impacts. 

After the meeting, Jeannie Mertens, who runs an auto care shop in Orovada, said that her big concern is traffic, and she would like to see the mining company pay for a new bypass road.

“You know what? It’s appreciated that they want to do anything at all,” Mertens said. “But they want to spend the money on the school because it is way cheaper than building a haul road.” 

It’s important, she said, for the community to reach a mutual agreement with the mine. 

“If this mine doesn’t go, the next one will, because there are claims all over there,” she said.

An ore sample from Thacker Pass at Lithium Americas’ process testing facility in Reno on May 12, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Whether or not — and when — the mine is constructed could be decided by a federal judge. 

Two ongoing lawsuits are challenging the federal government’s approval of the mine, claiming that the fast-tracked environmental review did not fully consider the lithium mine’s impacts. The lawsuits, and ongoing state permitting, could delay mine construction and ultimate operations.  

In February, four groups — Western Watersheds Project, Great Basin Resource Watch, Basin and Range Watch and Wildlands Defense — filed suit over the federal environmental review.

John Hadder, the executive director of Great Basin Resource Watch, said that the organization is not opposed to all lithium mining. But he said regulators should not shortcut the permitting process, which is meant to consider a project’s impact on the environment and communities.

“If we’re going to move forward with a new era of increased mining, we have to recognize that there are communities that are going to be disproportionately affected by these policies, and that has to be kept in mind in how we move forward,” Hadder said. “What is a just transition?”

Ed Bartell stands in front of Pole Creek, one of the streams mentioned in his lawsuit challenging the federal approval of the mine, on April 18, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

The second lawsuit was filed by Ed Bartell, an Orovada rancher. 

On a cool morning in late-April, Bartell opens a gate that leads into Pole Creek, one of the two streams that is mentioned in the lawsuit. The whole landscape changes around the water, and the sun is glistening off the stream. The lower section of Pole Creek is narrow, but Lahontan cutthroat trout, an endangered species and the Nevada state fish, has been observed in parts of the stream. In the past, the Nevada Department of Wildlife has monitored Pole Creek for trout.

The environmental review, relying on data from a mine consultant, argued that mine activities would have no effect on the species, a claim that environmental groups dispute in their lawsuit.

And some ranchers feel that federal regulators are applying a double-standard when it comes to protecting threatened wildlife, like the trout. They note that, for years, the same land managers have emphasized the need to protect habitat for sensitive species, including the sage-grouse.

Bartell points out several places where the environmental review misclassified resources in the area. He is also concerned that mining activity will affect the local hydrology, which is sensitive to significant changes. Bartell and another rancher are challenging the mine’s water permits. 

“It was really frustrating how quickly it got rushed,” Bartell said of the mine permitting. 

Bartell understands the demand for lithium, but he said the Thacker Pass mine presents too many concerns. He is worried about the potential for pollution and the disturbances to wildlife. 

“Obviously we need lithium mining, but it needs to be done in a sustainable way,” he said.

Nevada Independent photographer David Calvert contributed to this report. 

Update: An earlier version of this story identified Glenn Miller as serving on Great Basin Resource Watch's board of directors. This story was updated on June 21, 2021 at 9:01 a.m. to indicate that Miller, a founder of the group, resigned earlier this month.

The Protect Thacker Pass encampment at sunset on April 17, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)
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