State commission affirms environmental permit for Thacker Pass lithium mine

In a hearing June 28, the State Environmental Commission affirmed a contested water pollution control permit for the Thacker Pass lithium mine, a procedural step forward for a project that has faced concerns from several environmental groups, Native American tribes and local ranchers.  

The state permit, issued by the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection in February, would allow the mine to proceed if it meets certain requirements. Among those requirements are measures to prevent tailings, the byproducts of ore, from contaminating the environment, should water seep through the waste materials, which will contain chemicals used to process and extract lithium. 

Great Basin Resource Watch, a mining watchdog group, appealed the permit, arguing that the agency’s decision needed more robust vetting for a type of tailings storage facility that was new to Nevada. 

On June 28, the state’s environmental commission heard arguments on the appeal.

During the appeal hearing, Julie Cavanaugh-Bill, a lawyer for the conservation group, pointed to two reports, provided by the company, that formed the basis of the permit. In the group’s opening argument, Cavanagugh-Bill said the reports were incomplete and were, at times, contradictory.

“Again, we believe that the agency acted in an arbitrary and capricious manner and did not rely on the substantial evidence, which would have reflected these gaps in the analysis,” she argued. 

Although the agency, represented by Deputy Attorney General Dan Nubel, acknowledged that the reports had different inputs, it defended its decision-making at the hearing. The state further noted that the permit also requires active monitoring to protect against potential contamination.

“In this case, the [state agency] received and reviewed multiple credible reports that show that the project will not contaminate the state’s water,” Nubel argued during his opening statement.

After the public hearing was closed, the commission voted unanimously to affirm the decision to approve the permit, deferring to the agency’s interpretation of the science and the two models. 

John Hadder, the director of Great Basin Resource Watch, said he was disappointed by the outcome and the procedural limitations placed on the appeal process. He noted that Lithium Americas, the mining company developing the project, had filed a motion to strike an expert report from the record because it was filed after a deadline. 

"We wish they had considered our expert report and allowed witnesses for what we would have considered a more balanced presentation of the facts around the tailings facility," Hadder said after the hearing. 

Great Basin Resource Watch is one of several groups that have challenged a federal permit for the planned Humboldt County mine, which would be constructed near Orovada. The company and groups challenging the permit are in the process of briefing the issue in federal court. U.S. District Court Judge Miranda Du has not ruled on the merits of the federal environmental permit.