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Nevada lithium mine breaks ground despite Indigenous opposition

Los Angeles, California, USA – Construction is underway at the Thacker Pass lithium mine in northern Nevada after a federal court denied opponents’ requests for an injunction.

Lithium Americas, a mining company headquartered in Vancouver, Canada, said in a press release this month that workers at the site were drilling and laying infrastructure, including water pipelines.

General Motors, which wants lithium in the United States for electric vehicle batteries, announced earlier this year that it would invest $650 million in Lithium Americas if the mine clears legal and regulatory hurdles.

Gary McKinney of the local Shoshone-Paiute Indigenous tribe said he was disappointed to learn that construction on the mine had already begun.

“There was no environmental justice whatsoever,” McKinney told Al Jazeera, noting that extracting minerals for the energy transition was an “absurd” prospect that would destroy ecosystems rather than preserve them for future generations.

“It doesn’t make sense,” he said. “It will leave contamination; the only question is how much.”

McKinney is part of an indigenous group called People of Red Mountain that opposes the mine at Thacker Pass. They call the crescent-shaped pass Peehee Mu’huh, meaning “rotten moon,” in reference to the area’s 19th-century massacre of indigenous peoples.

Thacker Pass, the largest known lithium deposit in the US, is a key part of President Joe Biden’s administration plan to secure domestic minerals for electric vehicle battery production. As the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gases after China, the US needs to move away from fossil fuels to tackle global warming.

US President Joe Biden has made the transition to electric vehicles a key part of his plan to fight the climate crisis (File: Evan Vucci/AP Photo)

But the mine has faced lawsuits from tribes, ranchers and conservation groups who say it could destroy fragile ecosystems and desecrate a site where at least 31 Paiute people were reportedly killed by soldiers in 1865.

A federal court ruled in 2021 that there was not enough evidence to show that the massacre had taken place “within the project area”, but tribes claim it is sacred ground.

“There are cemeteries there. There are medicines and roots there, there are ecosystems – there is still life there,” said McKinney, who is a descendant of a massacre survivor. “And it’s all supposedly being sacrificed to solve the climate crisis.”

Legal battle

Ever since the Thacker Pass mine was approved in the final days of former President Donald Trump’s administration, opponents have fought to stop it. Last month, a judge ruled largely in favor of the mining company, clearing the way for construction. Opponents requested an emergency order while they appealed the decision, but that request was denied.

Talasi Brooks, an attorney for the Western Watersheds Project, one of the groups filing the motion for an injunction, told Al Jazeera the decision left her organization “devastated.”

She said the construction would destroy wildlife habitat, including for the sage grouse, a chubby bird with a flared tail facing shrinkage. The timing couldn’t be worse, she added, as construction would remove vegetation that provides an important food source for antelope, deer and sage grouse “just as spring sets in, when that habitat is most important to wildlife.”

According to a federal environmental assessmentthe Thacker Pass mining operation could also deplete groundwater even as the Nevada drought continues.

In litigation, a Lithium Americas attorney said the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) had asked the company to take action to preserve sage grouse habitat elsewhere in the state, “resulting in a net conservation gain.”

The company’s lawyers said legal delays thwarted the US’s ability to fight climate change and reduce its dependence on lithium from China. , and advances our country’s energy use, national security and economy within the community around the mine and throughout the state of Nevada.” The mine will create hundreds of jobs, the company said.

Lawyers representing the BLM also argued in court cases that allowing construction was in the public interest: “The lithium from this mine is a critical component of electric vehicle batteries and thus an important domestic resource for reducing the emission of greenhouse gasses.”

The BLM and Lithium Americas declined Al Jazeera’s requests for comment.

Outdated mining law

Thacker Pass is just one of many similar mining projects in the US that could impact Indigenous communities, with nearly 80 percent of the country’s lithium resources located within 56 km (35 mi) of Native American reservations.

Legal flashpoints have erupted across the US amid another iteration of the gold rush, said Aaron Mintzes, senior policy adviser to the advocacy group Earthworks. “We’re seeing them all over the country now because we’re on the precipice of our 21st century mineral storm,” he told Al Jazeera.

Current mining laws in the US have their roots in the violent colonization of the west, Mintzes said, when Americans used war, genocide and treaties to settle the region. Under the General Mining Act of 1872, which is still in effect, those wishing to mine land “open to access to minerals” need only put four stakes in the ground, report the claim to the BLM, prove they have found valuable minerals, and pay a fee — “then you get the right to mine,” Mintzes said.

For other land uses in the US, such as pipelines or solar farms, the government has some discretion. But it takes little discretion to deny a mine, because under the 1872 law, “if you discover valuable minerals, that land becomes yours,” Mintzes said.

While the government is required to consult tribes, he added, “this is not a consent-based process. It’s a check-the-box process.”

The Biden administration is currently considering reforms to the 150-year-old mining law, citing the need to “create a modern legal framework for the socially and environmentally responsible and sustainable mining and production” of minerals needed to support clean-energy to grow the economy.

Mintzes said he believes the US needs to update its “systemically racist” mining regulations while also building a circular economy to recycle minerals for batteries and reduce demand for new mining.

Meanwhile, the Western Watersheds Project continues to issue a call to stop the Thacker Pass project, with arguments scheduled for June.

“We’re hoping they’ll rule relatively quickly because the company won’t be done destroying that whole area just yet,” Brooks said. “So there’s still a chance to stop some of the destruction.”