One year and a few weeks since the federal government approved a permit for the Thacker Pass lithium mine, the Humboldt County-based project, not far from the Nevada-Oregon border, has been featured in dozens of national news articles, radio stories and TV segments.
Thacker Pass sits at the base of the Montana Mountains, and it’s where a lithium developer is planning an open-pit mine. What is visible from the surface — intact sagebrush, the mountains, cattle grazing across a highway, a protest camp — sits on top of what’s known as the McDermitt Caldera, a geologic feature formed by ancient large-scale volcanic activity millions of years ago. The caldera, thought to be an origin for the Yellowstone hotspot, goes on for miles, and geologists have flocked to it because it contains a key mineral.
That mineral is lithium, and Thacker Pass is said to be the largest known deposit in the U.S.
Why that matters is that lithium is a key ingredient for the batteries needed in the energy transition — the move away from an emissions-intensive economy based on fossil fuels to one powered by renewables, battery packs and electric vehicles. Lithium Americas, the firm behind the Thacker Pass project, argues the mine is critical in that transition and meeting the Biden administration’s goals of sourcing battery minerals domestically — mining for these products is largely offshored with only one active U.S. lithium mine outside of Tonopah.
But the mine is not without impacts, and since the permit was issued last year, the project has been the subject of a lawsuit with a diverse set of plaintiffs. A rancher, whose cattle graze near the planned mine site, sued over water and wildlife concerns. Environmental groups also raised concerns that the U.S. government’s permitting process was rushed and the effects were not fully considered. Native American tribes and an organization of tribal members from the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe also joined the lawsuit. They presented evidence of a nearby massacre in 1865 and said the U.S. government failed to consult with them.
Outside the courtroom, at Thacker Pass, environmental activists Max Wilbert and Will Falk established a protest encampment on the federal public land where the mine would be located. They were, for a time, joined by the People of Red Mountain, an organization of tribal members from the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe, whose reservation is about a 45 minute drive away.
In a statement on their website, the People of Red Mountain describe Thacker Pass as a sacred place that “is essential to the survival of our traditions because our traditions are directly tied to the land. Each season is a time to hunt animals and gather plants, food, and medicines. Peehee Mu’huh holds many first foods, medicines, and hunting grounds for our people in the past and present.” (Peehee Mu’huh is a Paiute name for Thacker Pass and translates to “rotten moon”).
At the same time, local ranchers in the nearby communities of Orovada and Kings River Valley had expressed concerns about how a new open-pit mine might affect everyday life: traffic, the capacity of a local school and an agricultural economy that relies on natural resources. They began meeting as a local concerned citizens group, largely separate from the encampment.
So one year later, where does the project, potentially America’s next largest lithium mine, stand? And how does the mine fit into the larger lithium rush in Nevada and elsewhere?
First, an update on the lawsuit. Last year, Federal District Court Judge Miranda Du rejected a request to block preliminary archeological work to inventory cultural sites at the mine, despite evidence of a Native American massacre near the site. But this is a crucial point: The judge has not yet ruled on the merits of the case, which focus on whether the U.S. Bureau of Land Management erred in granting a permit for the mine. The environmental groups have raised a number of concerns about how the mine’s footprint and the noise generated from it could affect populations of imperiled Greater sage-grouse and migration for other wildlife.
“We really look forward to getting those [issues] in front of her,” said Kelly Fuller, with the Western Watersheds Project. “We think we've got a good case, and we'll see what happens.”
The judge hinted during oral arguments last summer that she believed an injunction was not justified for the archeological work, given the footprint of the planned work was relatively small. But the judge also appeared to draw a distinction between the impact of the early mine work and the mine itself. Although Du did not issue a preliminary injunction, she said she would work to issue her ruling on the merits before mine construction begins.
At the same time, the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony recently appealed Du’s ruling (denying the preliminary injunction) to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
That appeal came amid a split in the coalition fighting the mine. Falk, the environmental activist who set up camp at Thacker Pass, is also a lawyer and represents the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony. Until recently, Falk also represented the People of Red Mountain, but withdrew his representation, telling the court that “irreconcilable differences” had arisen. Daranda Hinkey, an organizer with the People of Red Mountain, said in a recent interview that the organization believed the legal fight would be best led by tribal governments, as sovereign nations.
“We still hope that what we were fighting for when we were in the lawsuit still goes on,” Hinkey said. “We don’t want any hard feelings, but we knew that it wasn’t our place to be anymore.”
A recent report from E&E News’ Jael Holzman shed more light on the split in the opposition. Holzman’s piece documented how environmental and Indigenous groups have been distancing themselves from Wilbert and Falk, who have ties to Deep Green Resistance, which calls itself a “radical environmental” and “radical feminist” organization. At issue is the group’s discriminatory views on transgender and nonbinary people (for instance, opposing allowing transgender women in women-only bathrooms).
On Thursday, after E&E News published its report, the Western Watersheds Project tweeted that it “supports the rights of all LGBT+ people.”
With no injunction in place, the archeological work can begin, but Lithium Americas has indicated that the work will not start until weather permits, likely in the spring. According to the company, a contractor has been working to train tribal members from the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe and the Winnemucca Indian Colony to monitor the work when it does occur.
At the same time, the company is expanding its footprint in Reno. It is building out a 30,000 square-foot facility in Reno as a new pilot plant for the company’s operations. And the company is still in the process of obtaining water and environmental permits from the state. The company has also said it is working with local residents on the issues involving the school and increased traffic.
Behind the permitting process is a larger backdrop: The hunt for new supplies of lithium to fuel the energy transition, a process expected to be mineral intensive. Deep within the fight over Thacker Pass and the efforts to permit it are questions about how and in what manner these projects come online. And do they come online in a way that addresses local concerns? Electric cars are driving demand for lithium, but the public and some local communities (including those outside Nevada) are wary of mitigating climate change through more mining, even as companies have pledged to reduce their environmental footprint. In late January, the Serbian government canceled licenses for a lithium mine after protests. But with each scrapped project, a supply shortage continues to intensify, spurring a rush to bring more projects online.
Last year, when The Nevada Independent went out to Thacker Pass, one thing that stood out to me and photojournalist David Calvert was not only the concern over Lithium Americas’ mine, but the broader concern that it could transform a rural landscape and economy, suddenly thrust into the center of a global lithium supply chain needed to lower climate-changing carbon emissions.
Indeed, there was concern that the area could one day become a mining district. Lithium Americas has claims in other parts of the Montana Mountains with even more sensitive wildlife habitat, but it has pledged not to mine those areas. Yet the threat remains. On the other side of the range, in Oregon, another company, Jindalee Resources, is exploring claims to mine lithium.
Hinkey, with the People of Red Mountain, said her group is watching that project too. She wants to make sure tribal members are fully engaged in the permitting process, whereas Hinkey said many members were unaware of the tribal government’s decision-making around Thacker Pass.
"We want to make sure our tribe is fully aware and making the right decisions,” Hinkey said in an interview last month. “Not just for a few people, but the whole community’s voice.”
The Thacker Pass Concerned Citizens group (TPCC) and Lithium Nevada Corporation (LNC) penned a joint letter to Gov. Steve Sisolak, asking for assistance in addressing transportation impacts to the Orovada and McDermitt area. The letter, dated Jan. 28, says the groups are working toward addressing “potential land, water, air, and transportation impacts.
“These potential impacts caused considerable community safety and "way of life" concerns, which continue to this day,” it says. “The majority of Orovada area residents recognize that state and national law, regulation, and policy supports mining of strategic minerals, such as lithium. However, the residents are being asked to bear the direct impacts of the Thacker Pass project and are expected to shoulder that burden for the sake of the common good. The local communities and LNC are working cooperatively to ensure that the Thacker Pass project is implemented in a way that minimizes adverse impacts and maximizes benefits.”
The letter continues to say that in 2021, LNC and the TPCC formed a working group and jointly hired facilitators to guide discussions about the project and its impacts.
“Numerous meetings have been held by this working group to document and prioritize community concerns, identify potential opportunities, and become better informed on ways to manage the changes that will come to the community as a result of the Project,” the letter states. “One of the group’s accomplishments has been to design an improved intersection at US Route 95 and State Route 293. The NDOT permitting process is underway for this intersection and must be completed for Thacker Pass to move forward. The working group is also in discussions with Mr. Kris Sanchez of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development on additional improvements to infrastructure in the area. This working group has made progress, but now needs the support of the Governor and the State of Nevada to move forward.”
Orovada sits at the junction of US Route 95 and SR 293, and the letter claims its citizens are “at risk from safety hazards caused by degraded highways, lack of passing lanes, inadequate shoulders, and minimal maintenance and law enforcement staff. These roads were not designed for this level of traffic and are ill-equipped from an engineering and safety perspective.”
The Thacker Pass Project is projected to increase truck traffic by 150+ per day, which parties say necessitates the need for road improvements even more.
“There are significant concerns about the local impacts of this project; in particular about the safety and sustainability of US Route 95 and SR 293 to serve both their designed purposes of carrying agriculture, traffic from cars and trucks, and the exponential increase of traffic that would serve the lithium mine. LNC and TPCC have been working together to delineate necessary repairs and upgrades to these routes,” the letter states. “However, given the role that the State plays in road and highway management, this is a critical area where we need (the governor’s) leadership and assistance.”
The letter invites Sisolak and staff to visit the site “to experience our unique environment and culture and tour the proposed mine site.”
The letter was signed by Gina Amato, co-chair TPCC, Karen Hogue, co-chair TPCC and Alexi Zawadzki, President, LNC.