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Situated between the high peaks and low valley floors of northern Nevada is Thacker Pass, an expanse of land that is bordered from the north and south by the Montana and Double H mountain ranges. The pass is in traditional Paiute and Shoshone land and holds great ecological and cultural significance, yet a new proposal to build an open-pit lithium mine threatens to disturb the area. 

Located atop an extinct supervolcano called the McDermitt Caldera, Thacker Pass sits on one of the largest lithium deposits in the United States. According to the company Lithium Nevada, who will be running the project, the operation has a lifespan of at least 46 years. The lithium would be used in renewable energy technology like batteries for electric cars. 

The process for approving the mine has been sped up in the past year due in part to former President Trump’s passage of Executive Order 13927. This order expedited the environmental impact statements (EIS) of numerous energy and natural resource projects across the country as coronavirus cases soared throughout the United States. 

“On average, the environmental review process for a project like this takes 3.5 years,” said Will Falk, an activist who has been involved in protesting the Thacker Pass development. “The process at Thacker Pass has taken just one.”

The EIS for Thacker Pass was approved by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in December 2020. On Jan. 15, 2021, just a few days after President Biden’s inauguration, Lithium Nevada’s first federal permits were issued.

“Trump fast-tracked the mine and Biden is encouraging this because lithium is viewed as a solution for a so-called greener future,” said Daranda Hinkey, a member of the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe, during a discussion panel organized by the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada. 

Fort McDermitt sits just an hour north of Thacker Pass on Highway 93 and is the closest reservation to the area. According to Hinkey, many of the Fort McDermitt tribal members did not know about the mine until it was already approved, even though the BLM is required to inform and consult with nearby tribes before moving forward with a project.

“A letter has to be sent to the tribal council to let them know about the proposal,” said John Hadder, executive director of Great Basin Resource Watch, an environmental justice organization based in Nevada. “If they don’t respond, it is taken as a sign to go ahead with operations.” 

According to Hinkey, the BLM notified Fort McDermitt about the proposal in the summer of 2020 when the Tribal Council offices were closed and the reservation was dealing with surging Covid-19 cases. No further outreach was made before the draft EIS was released to the public. 

“The tribe didn’t get the opportunity to comment during the EIS’s commentary period,” said Billy Bell, a Fort McDermitt tribal Council member. 

Throughout 2020, the community meetings organized by Lithium Nevada and the BLM were conducted virtually due to the coronavirus pandemic. Many people living at Fort McDermitt don’t have internet access, which means that attending these community meetings or submitting online comments about the draft EIS was impossible. 

Prior to the proposal, Lithium Nevada and the Fort McDermitt tribe were involved in a Project Engagement Agreement. The agreement was meant to involve the tribe in the mine’s plan of operations, cultural engagements, and job training. Nothing within the agreement occurred except for a construction training program for tribal members with Great Basin College. 

In April, after pressure from tribal members, the Fort McDermitt Tribal Council withdrew from the engagement agreement. Now, an archaeological treatment plan is underway to determine what Paiute and Shoshone history can be found at Thacker Pass. This will help determine whether the mining proposal threatens any culturally significant sites. 

As told by Fort McDermitt elders, a massacre once occurred at Thacker Pass at the hands of white soldiers. Paiute and Shoshone bodies were strewn across the sagebrush in the moon-shaped caldera, which is why Thacker Pass’s Paiute name is Peehee mu’huh, or “rotten moon.” There is speculation that there are burial sites at Thacker Pass from this massacre, which is one of the things the archaeological survey will be able to determine. 

“We believe that if you extract those things, if you take those artifacts and human remains, you're bringing illness into yourself and into your life. And we don’t want to do that,” said Hinkey. 

Many tribal members have urged that the tribal council file a lawsuit against the company because of the expedited environmental review process and potential for destruction of culturally significant sites. 

There are also concerns about the environmental impact of the mine. Located between two mountain ranges, Thacker Pass is a wildlife corridor that provides habitat for sage grouse, golden eagles, pronghorn, and bighorn sheep. The corridor is replete with old-growth sagebrush that these animals rely on. It is also at the headwaters of multiple springs and creeks, which provide habitat for the threatened Lahontan cutthroat trout. 

The lithium boom

The project has been lauded by Lithium Nevada as an answer to moving the United States toward a future reliant on more sustainable energy production. The company’s mine would be the second functional lithium mine in the United States. In an economic development incentive application submitted by the company to the Nevada Governor’s office, Lithium Nevada asserted that part of their plan is to eventually ensure that the operation is carbon neutral. However, there has been no indication of what steps will be taken to make this possible. 

“Damaging habitat unnecessarily is not how we address climate change,” said Hadder from Great Basin Resource Watch. “Once the habitat is destroyed, it takes hundreds of years to return.”

Great Basin Resource Watch is part of a coalition of conservation groups that has filed a lawsuit against the BLM because of the rushed environmental review process and what they believe to be a poorly prepared EIS. 

Another lawsuit has been filed by Edward Bartell, a rancher from the nearby community of Orovada. His concerns lie in the impact on the groundwater in the proposed area. If this water were to be polluted by chemical leakage from the mine, the quality of his land would decrease. Lithium Nevada has refused to promise compensation for this potential damage. 

The community and environmental impact of the Thacker Pass lithium mining proposal has spurred Paiute and Shoshone activists and allies to join in protest.

Tribal members band together

Some Fort McDermitt members have organized to form the group People of Red Mountain. The group has been writing letters to United States Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland and asking nearby tribal councils to compose a letter of support for the Fort McDermitt tribe. 

Another group has formed an encampment at Thacker Pass to draw awareness to the mining proposal. The effort, called Protect Thacker Pass, has been going on since the first permits were passed on Jan. 15. According to the group’s core organizers, their goal is to slow and eventually stop the mine from happening. 

Currently, Lithium Nevada is waiting on three permits to be issued before it can begin operation: a Mining Reclamation Permit, Water Pollution Control Permit, and Class II Air Quality Operating Permit. The Nevada Division of Environmental Protection (NDEP) is responsible for approving these permits. 

Once approved, public notice, hearings, and comments will begin. According to an NDEP presentation at a community meeting on April 22, the public engagement period for each of the permits will likely occur in late spring and summer 2021. 

For now, the Fort McDermitt tribe is continuing to pay close attention to the process. What the tribe decides to do moving forward will depend on the results of the archaeological treatment plan, but Council member Billy Bell reassured that the Tribal Council is well prepared for the possibility of a lawsuit.

“This is the first time that this type of threat level for environmental and human health has reached our reservation’s borders,” he said.

Claire Carlson grew up in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada but can now be found exploring the mountain ranges of western Montana. She just finished a master's degree in environmental studies at the University of Montana.

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