‘This place is sacred’

The quest to save Thacker Pass from lithium development

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In March, Boulder artist and blogger Blair Chandler traveled to the Protect Thacker Pass camp, where she painted these watercolors of mountains, sagebrush and golden eagles. See more at blairsherbals.com or @ipaintlifestudio on Instagram.
Blair Chandler

According to oral tradition, there once was a band of Paiute Shoshone camping at Thacker Pass — between the Double H and Montana Mountains in Northern Nevada — waiting for the hunters to return from Paradise Valley below. But when the hunters approached the camp around dusk, “they said that they could smell something rotting,” says Daranda Hinkey, an enrolled member of the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribes. They soon came upon a massacre, their elders, women and children laying in the old sage brush with their insides dragged across the landscape in the section of the pass shaped like a crescent, when looking from the east. It’s how the area earned its Indigenous name: Peehee mu’huh or “rotten moon.” 

“All the elders, they’ll tell you that this place, they feel something very powerful there. Some people might think it’s just a feeling, but in our way this place is sacred,” Hinkey says. 

Hinkey first heard the story of Peehee mu’huh from her grandmother and two other elders only a few months ago, as they traveled from their home on the nearby Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation up to the Protect Thacker Pass camp. Situated at the southern end of an ancient volcanic caldera, surrounded by mountain peaks in a remote corner of Nevada close to the Oregon border, the pass is rich in wildlife, providing critical habitat for the greater sage grouse, foraging ground for golden eagles, and a migration corridor for pronghorns. Several endangered species — trout, bighorn sheep, rabbits — as well as a rare springsnail, are found in the area too. 

But it is also the site of a proposed open-pit lithium mine, approved in the final days of the Trump administration, after what critics say was a rushed and inadequate review process. In response, the project faces two lawsuits, a protest camp, which has been stationed at the site since January, and mounting tribal concerns given its location on the traditional lands of the Paiute, Shoshone and Bannock peoples. 

“Often, companies want to rush ahead. Government wants to rush ahead. They’ve got all these high-level things they want to do,” says Kelly Fuller, energy and mining campaign director for Western Watershed Project, one of four organizations challenging the project’s approval in a lawsuit. “But they leave out the wildlife, they leave out the habitat, they leave out the people, they leave out the ranchers and the farmers and the tribes.”  

As the U.S. seeks to rid itself of carbon dependence in the fight against climate change, it has set its sights on renewable energy, relying on a vast array of minerals — like lithium, cobalt and nickel — to transition to a battery-powered economy. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that demand for lithium is expected to triple in the next five years, spurred in large part by the electric vehicle (EV) market. What’s more, unlike other extractive industries that are known for their boom and bust cycles, and despite recent years of low prices, WSJ reports “few are predicting another bust” when it comes to lithium mining. Some researches predict EVs — which currently make up about 4% of the car market — will account for 50% of the world’s vehicles in less than 10 years.  

But currently most of the world’s lithium comes from Australia, Chile, Argentina and China, the latter responsible for most of the processing, despite the fact that the U.S. has some of the largest lithium reserves in the world. If constructed, the Thacker Pass mine would be only the second — and largest — lithium mine in the U.S. Operated by the Canadian-based Lithium Americas Corporation, the proposed project area covers almost 18,000 acres of leased public land managed by Bureau of Land Management (BLM) — with a disturbance area of 5,000 acres. It will include an approximately 2.3-mile-long open-pit mine and on-site sulfuric acid plant, while using billions of gallons of groundwater and generating a significant amount of waste. Lithium Americas is approved to operate the mine for the next 40 years, projecting it will produce up to 66,000 metric tons of battery-grade lithium annually. The mine could run longer, if the company finds more lithium. According to the environmental impact statement (EIS), groundwater contamination could extend up to a mile from the mine site for the next 300 years. 

“You can’t save the planet by destroying it,” says Max Wilbert, who has been camped out at Thacker Pass in protest of the project since its approval on Jan. 15. “And this vision of a new green energy economy that Biden and a lot of progressives are promoting, the sad reality of it is that it’s going to require destroying huge portions of public lands, of Indigenous lands, sacred territory. There are significant costs to that.”

Wilbert first learned of the Thacker Pass lithium project while helping to research a book on the environmental harms of green technology, opposing it during the BLM’s public comment period and visiting the site last fall, when he and others began planning the protest camp. 

Blair Chandler

“It’s not just about this place,” he says. “This is symbolic of the issue we’re seeing playing out all over the world, where places like Thacker Pass are being sacrificed to quote-unquote save the planet. There’s no difference from the perspective of the land if it’s destroyed for fossil fuels or for lithium extraction. The species are just as extinct, the water is just as poisoned. And frankly, the greenhouse gas emissions are really serious and significant as well.” 

Under directive from the Trump administration to become energy independent and expedite infrastructure projects for economic recovery, the BLM conducted the environmental review process for Thacker Pass in less than a year, with virtual public informational meetings about the project due to the coronavirus pandemic and public comment period occurring over winter holidays. In so doing, the lawsuit from four environmental groups alleges the BLM violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and Federal Land Policy and Management Act, when it gave final approval and published its record of decision on the Thacker Pass mine on Jan. 15. Due to pending litigation, the local BLM field offices declined comment for this story. 

“The process just doesn’t work when it goes that fast, especially when it happens during a global pandemic,” Fuller says. “It did not give the public enough time to consider what’s going on and to give information to the agency, so the agencies can fulfill their legal roles. It certainly doesn’t give the tribes enough time.”

While several tribes claim connection to the potentially impacted landscape, the closest is the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribes, which originally entered into an engagement agreement with Lithium Americas in 2019. According to a statement provided to BW from the company, this facilitated meetings with the tribal council, workforce development, employment screenings for tribal members and the donation of a passenger van to transport people to training. But in the expedited approval process, tribal members and others say the tribe wasn’t given an adequate chance to comment or consult on the project. One tribal councilmember, for example, only heard about the BLM’s approval of the project after High Country News reached out for comment. 

Hinkey, a recent graduate of Southern Oregon University with a bachelor’s degree in environmental science and policy, also only learned of the project after it was approved. In response, she, along with about 10 other tribal members, formed Atsa Koodakuh wyh Nuwu, or People of the Red Mountain, to oppose the Thacker Pass mine, joining with Wilbert and the other folks at Protect Thacker Pass.

“It’s a very high desert ecosystem and water is really precious here,” she says. “We are currently in a drought right now. It has pretty high heat records right now, and the water’s pretty low already. I cannot imagine what the mine would do not only to the reservation resources, but the places that we still have roots, like the places we still go gather things and places we hunt — that technically isn’t reservation land, but it is our ancestral homelands.”

Derek Hinkey, a relative of Daranda’s, says his ancestors used the territory during the Snake War in the mid-19th century as European settlers expanded west, encroaching on land and resources of the Northern Paiute, Bannock and Western Shoshone bands. Although widely overlooked in U.S. history, it is believed to be the deadliest of the conflicts during Western expansion, with estimated combined casualties of 1,762 men. 

Blair Chandler

“We had various battles, but we always utilized the mountains, the land, the earth. Our warriors would blend in with the sage brush, our horse riders would hide upon the ridges. The people would run to the mountains,” Derek Hinkey says. “And I think, as Indian people, sometimes we forget that we are the land.” 

 Over the course of the spring, the People of the Red Mountain circulated a petition, asking the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribal Council to withdraw from its agreement with Lithium Americas, which it did in the beginning of April, Hinkey says. In addition to citing threats to cultural and natural resources like land, water, wildlife, hunting and gathering areas, the petition also proposed the tribe initiate a lawsuit against the BLM for violating the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and other laws in its approval of the Thacker Pass project. To date, a lawsuit has not been filed, and BW’s attempts to reach Tribal Chairman Maxine Redstar were unsuccessful. 

In a statement provided to BW, Lithium Americas Corporation says the cultural inventory included in the EIS “suggest the presence of historic obsidian tools as well as roads and sites related to ranching and the Civilian Conservation Corps. The study does not indicate that Thacker Pass is a burial location.”

Further, the company stated, “Lithium Nevada is working hard to ensure impacts to historic artifacts are mitigated,” by pursuing a permit “to conduct additional cultural work at Thacker Pass. This work will not be permitted until consultation with the local tribes is completed.” 

But it’s not just conservationists and tribal members critiquing the company’s proposal. 

Ranchers in the area have also expressed concern over contaminated water sources in an already arid climate. One, Edward Bartell, has filed a separate lawsuit alleging the mine threatens private property, public land where he holds a federal grazing permit, and his water rights. 

The lawsuit claims the EIS “presents a one-sided, deeply-flawed, and incomplete analysis and characterization of the proposed project and its likely adverse environmental impacts,” as it was prepared by consultants for Lithium Americas. Further, Bartell alleges the consultants used “grossly inaccurate, incomplete, and inadequate data for constructing baselines and models purporting to estimate impacts to water resources caused by the groundwater pumping that would be associated with the Mine.” 

The rancher even hired his own hydrologist, whose findings suggest the consultants underestimated the water flow in the area, creating even more concern that the mine will further deplete water resources in the area under the radar. “The BLM did very little, if any, of their own hydrology,” Bartell told Grist in March. “They just accepted whatever the lithium company provided.”

Blair Chandler

As the lawsuits wind their way through the courts, and more and more people gather at the Protect Thacker Pass camp (anywhere from five to 80 people have been there at any given time since January, Wilbert says), the next phase of the project could begin this summer. Resource studies at the site, including surface disturbance, mechanized trench excavation, and removal of wildlife habitat and vegetation were expected to begin as soon as June 23. In response to a preliminary injunction request from the conservation groups to halt any work before the court has a chance to consider their case, on June 8, Lithium Americas and the BLM agreed to postpone ground disturbance activities until at least July 29, in a court-enforced stipulation. 

“Under no circumstances should digging proceed at the site before the court has a chance to hear and consider our lawsuit,” Fuller says, “and I would add to that before the tribes have a chance to talk to [Secretary of the Interior] Deb Haaland directly.”

Hinkey says she and other members of the tribe have written letters to the new Interior secretary, the first Native American to hold the role, in hopes of drawing her attention to the project. While the Biden administration has promised to restore environmental review processes that were stripped under his predecessor, the president has also expressed support of lithium exploration in an attempt to make supply chains more resilient. And many are concerned that if the Thacker Pass approval remains as is, it will create a dangerous model for lithium development, as the country seeks to meet its energy needs. 

“The Biden administration really needs to step back and really look at what happened here. Because if they don’t, what this is doing is it’s establishing precedent for how this country’s going to go about permitting and building lithium mines on public land,” Fuller says. 

There are of course others who want to see the permitting of the mine rescinded completely. 

“I’m here at Thacker Pass to protect this land but also because we need to change the entire direction our culture is going,” Wilbert says. “We need to move away from this brutal extraction-based way of life, this extraction-based economy that has been the dominate paradigm in this country since Europeans arrived on the Eastern Seaboard.”

As such, he sees this week’s agreement to postpone work as “only a temporary reprieve, not a significant victory.” And Protect Thacker Pass has no intention of changing its plans to remain at the site, and continue gathering people in opposition to the mine over the coming weeks and months ahead. 

Derek Hinkey, too, doesn’t see any reason why Lithium Americas or the government won’t continue to seek his ancestral homelands for resource development in the future, unless the courts intervene to stop them.  

“The government, they’ve always known what minerals, what metals are in the ground, in that whole area. So they’re not going to go away that easily,” he says. “And I think this is something that we teach our next generation that you have to fight for our home, fight for the land, the water, because they’re always going to be knocking at the door.”