In a decision Monday, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the U.S. government did not violate federal environmental laws when it approved Lithium Nevada's Thacker Pass mine in the waning days of the Trump administration. This is a serious blow to tribes as they consider the land that is due to be mined as sacred. A U.S. appeals court denied the last-ditch legal effort to block construction. This will be the largest lithium mine in North America on federal land in Nevada.
We all know that Lithium is a key component of electric vehicle batteries, this is no news to us. Without lithium the clean energy movement will come to a grinding halt as rechargeable batteries are used in electric appliances and vehicles. Company officials say the Thacker Pass mine's reserves would support lithium for more than 1.5 million electric vehicles per year for 40 years. Despite pressure from west coast Paiute tribes and environmentalists, the Biden administration did not reverse the decision. Continued to advocation for the mine by the Biden administration ensured its plans would follow through, which sets the stage to be located on remote federal land near the Nevada-Oregon border.
"We have always been confident that the permitting process for Thacker Pass was conducted thoroughly and appropriately," says Jonathan Evans, CEO of Lithium Americas in a statement provided to NPR. "Construction activities continue at the project as we look forward to playing an important role in strengthening America's domestic battery supply chains."
Several area tribes and environmental groups have tried to block or delay the Thacker Pass mine for more than two years. They argue that federal land managers fast tracked the investigation without proper consultation with Indian Country.
"They rushed this project through during COVID and essentially selected three tribes to talk to instead of the long list of tribes that they had talked to in the past," Rick Eichstaedt, an attorney for the Burns Paiute Tribe, said in an interview late last month. A lawyer for four conservation groups seeking to halt the project said a U.S. district judge in Reno illegally exceeded her authority when she refused to revoke the mine's operation plan in March despite her conclusion that federal land managers had violated the law in approving parts of it.
“This is the first time in public land history that we have a major project violating a number of provisions but is allowed to go forward,” Roger Flynn, an environmental lawyer told a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. “In the meantime, thousands of acres of public land are essentially being clear-cut,” he said Tuesday about the high-desert sagebrush that serves as critical habitat for the imperiled bird species sage grouse.
Lawyers for the Bureau of Land Management, the agency that approved the mine, and the mining company, Lithium Nevada Corp., denied the mine would cause any serious harm to sage grouse or other species. Conservationists say the open pit mine, deeper than the length of a football field, will pollute the groundwater and destroy precious habitat for sage grouse, pronghorn antelope and other species in violation of environmental laws.
The land is considered sacred to some Native people as it's believed to be the site of at least two ancient massacres. Tribal elders still go there to conduct ceremonies and gather traditional plants. But in their ruling, the Ninth Circuit judges responded that only after the mine was approved by federal land managers did it become known that some tribes consider the land sacred. Full construction of the mine is expected to begin in earnest this summer.
As our society moves forward towards lithium mining, its important to be vigilant about ensuring source materials are mined ethically. The United States governments doesn’t exactly have a clean track record when brokering deals with native peoples. Some claim that the native peoples are not being truthful about the sacredness of the land and that the environmentalists are wrong in their assessment. Others say this is indicative of big government bulldozing over under-represented groups for a big agenda with deep pockets. What do you think this is?