Commissioners updated on lithium projects in the region

Mining lithium in Humboldt County has been a hot topic, especially as Lithium Americas has just secured conditional approval of a loan for their multi-billion-dollar project, and another company, HiTech Minerals, has requested a letter of support from the Humboldt County Board of Commissioners to the Department of Energy (DOE) for their funding application.

At its regular meeting on March 18, the Commissioners (with all members present) heard an update from both HiTech Minerals and Lithium Americas in regards to the status of both of their projects, but were divided on the matter of support for HiTech’s request, which was approved in a 3-2 vote. 

Lithium Americas

Lithium Americas Vice President of Government & Community Relations Tim Crowley explained that the Thacker Pass project has not only attained all of their necessary construction permitting and has affirmed those permits through the judicial review process, but has also secured a $2.26 billion conditional loan from the DOE, approximately 75 percent of the total financing needed for the lithium mine. 

“Without financing we cannot build this. It's important to point out that we're a company that has not made revenue yet. We haven't made $1, so we have cash and each and every day we're spending that cash down. So, moving forward, this is a big deal,” said Crowley. 

The DOE loan is conditional on Lithium Americas securing the rest of the funding for the Thacker Pass project, which is about $3 billion, and with General Motors investing two financing commitments totaling $650 million, Lithium Americas will still be looking for around $200 million in order to finalize all of their funding. 

“We still have to go out to the market and raise some more money which we're doing today. Now that we are past step one with the DOE, we're ready to move forward with selecting financing options for the gap in our funding," Crowley said. "It's not clear when we'll finalize that but once that's completed General Motors will contribute the second commitment that they've made, which is $330 million. All of that will be bundled together and we hope to close later this year."

Lithium America’s workforce hub, which will house up to 2,000 workers at the peak of construction, is also on track for completion, with the last units coming into Lithium America’s possession soon. 

Crowley explained that they are currently working to mitigate dust, erosion, and track out issues at the hub site, stating that they are working with contractors that will use water trucks on the site, and pursuing rumble pads and silt fencing as remedies for erosion and track out. 

On the Thacker Pass site, a six-mile water line is in place and has been buried, and the land will be reseeded this spring, bringing it back to its “natural state.” Topsoil is being stockpiled from the first few feet on the construction site that contains high levels of organic material, according to Crowley. 

Basic infrastructure work on site—performed by Sawtooth mining crews— has been underway, with workers utilizing smaller equipment in order to conserve resources but stay productive until Lithium Americas receives their final notice to proceed. 

Other projects, such as Lithium’s permanent office located in Winnemucca has been completed, but the new school that Lithium Americas is partnering with the Orovada community, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Humboldt County School District to construct is behind schedule. 

“The land [for the school] has been transferred to the school district. They're the official title holders, and we have a meeting with Superintendent Dave Jensen next month to really put out a construction schedule," Crowley said.  "We'd hoped to be in construction today. We wanted to open that school for the 2025 school year and that's not going to happen. We're behind but we still want to move as fast as we possibly can."

Lithium has also committed to building a community center for the Fort McDermitt Tribe, but according to Crowley, the Tribe is currently pursuing a way to leverage the funding in order to seek grants that could be a part of a much larger community project. 

“[The Tribe] has a professional that works on their economic development work who has put together a business plan to leverage our contribution to build four buildings on the Tribe’s reservation," Crowley said. "We liked the idea and now we're looking at a new community benefits agreement with the Tribe. If it doesn't work out, we're not abandoning the commitment that we've made to them. This is something that they're driving, we're reacting and if ultimately, we come to an agreement to leverage our contribution to go after additional grant money to build more infrastructure for the Tribe, we think that that's a winning proposition and our men are really happy about that."

Lithium Americas has also closed on the lease with the City of Winnemucca on the site for their transloading terminal, located on a 177.3-acre parcel to the west of the Winnemucca Municipal Airport that will have a rail spur with cars containing loads of soda ash, quick lime, off-road diesel, caustic soda, muriatic acid, and liquid sulfur that will be off loaded and then trucked approximately 70 miles to Orovada. 

“We're positioned to really move forward in a very, very professional way. We're committed to the development of lithium materials and we think it's something that this community can be very proud of in the future,” said Crowley.

HiTech Minerals

Brett Marsh, Vice President of Exploration and Development for HiTech Minerals, subsidiary of Jindalee Resources, also updated the Board on their project, which will encompass about 7,200 acres straddling the Oregon-Nevada border near McDermit. 

“We realized as we go forward into future operations, we'll probably be pulling on some of the same resources for workforce and infrastructure that are currently underway with Lithium Americas as well,” explained Marsh. 

HiTech Minerals is set to conduct a pre-feasibility study for their project—a visualization that will give an idea of the actual lithium in the area— but the project as a whole is about seven years behind the Thacker Pass project, according to Marsh.

Environmental studies through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) are also being completed, with HiTech incorporating the comments they got through the comment period prior to entering NEPA. 

Marsh explained that HiTech is also pursuing federal funding through the DOE, requiring an extensive plan for community relations and benefits agreements, which Humboldt County could be a part of. 

“We really look forward to partnering with the community as we move along with this application process and then beyond so that we can bring some benefits into the area,” said Marsh.  

In consideration for the letter of support to the DOE for a financing application, Commissioners Ron Cerri and Tom Hoss (both in opposition of the letter of support), were critical of the project and any form of support without a clear picture of what the project would specifically entail, as it is just in the early stages of feasibility. 

Cerri, as an Orovada resident, was especially concerned with impact to the area, including land owners and ranchers, as well as any particular benefits that another lithium development could potentially bring to the area. 

“It's still in early, early stages, and we'd be signing on to support something that we really don't know what it’s going to be and the impact it is going to have on us,” said Cerri. 

“I think it's way too early for us to make any commitments, especially since the mine is in Oregon. I would say that we are a little bit premature to be signing anything with them until we find out what they're actually going to do,” said Hoss.

Commissioners Ken Tipton, Jesse Hill, and Mark Evatz (who voted in approval of a letter of support) agreed that a letter of support would prepare Humboldt County a place in crucial discussions about the project and keep them engaged in major decisions and plans. 

“A letter of support gets us a seat at the table where we can help plan this—what kind of benefits our community will see out of this. And, you know, I think the letter is a very general letter of support, which we've drafted here now and does just put us at the table and allows us to voice our concerns at a high level,” explained Hill.