Native Americans combat Nevada lithium mining

A toxic process hyped as part of the “green” energy solution

Protester of the Thacker Pass lithium mine. PHOTO: Max Wilbert / Mongabay
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Three tribes are taking the Federal Government to court to halt Thacker Pass lithium mining near the Oregon border. At this same location federal troops massacred up to 50 Paiute men, women, and children in September, 1865. Today, the land is being readied to mine lithium, which is increasingly needed to build batteries for electric vehicles. Corporations are touting it as the “green” answer to fossil fuel.

In February, a judge rejected the tribes’ request to block the mine because it would destroy an area rich in wildlife, traditional food and medicine plants, and central in tribal spiritual practices. The Burns Paiute, Summit Lake Paiute, and Reno-Sparks Indian Colony are now joined by others with evidence that only three of the 22 tribal nations involved were consulted during the sped-up permit process.

Tribes and environmentalists argue that the original Bureau of Land Management (BLM) permit and the recent court ruling violate the National Environmental Policy Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, and the Federal Land Management Act. They also charge the BLM with breach of contract for allowing the Canadian Lithium America company to drill scores of “bulk-sampling” test sites in this area of cultural and archaeological importance, now being considered for a National Historic Site. Actual construction began on March 3, though waste disposal permits are still not approved.

Dirty mining doesn’t equal clean energy. The Thacker Pass mine and processing facility could grow to cover 17,000 acres, with the open pit 2.3 miles long and several football fields deep. The ore is crushed, roasted, and treated with sulfuric acid. It takes up to 500 tons of soil to produce one ton of rare mineral. Every year 1.7 billion gallons of water will be used. Some methods also require evaporation in huge open-air ponds, with tons of wastewater and by-products needing disposal.

Extracting lithium causes the same toxicity as fossil fuel mining. Each pollutes air, soil, and water; chemically endangers people, animals and plants; depletes groundwater; and violates indigenous land rights and historical sites. Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act appallingly uses public funds to pay 75% of the cost of building mines that endanger the public!

“Greenwashing” at its worst. Corporations are capitalizing on growing public concern for the planet to magnify their profits. Forty more permits are pending for lithium mines in Nevada alone and new mines are proposed in Maine, North Carolina, California’s Salton Sea and even on the ocean floors. This situation is duplicated around the world as indigenous peoples and environmentalists fight toxic mining in Australia, Europe, and Africa.

Fast-tracking lithium mining permits and hyping electric vehicles while easing environmental laws is not the solution for transportation or the environment. Creating better batteries, recycling lithium batteries, and reducing individual vehicles would help. Mass transport systems must be designed for the benefit of users and the planet, under control of workers and the public — not for increasing profits at the expense of history, culture, and life itself. Planet Earth needs a national public transportation plan and a safe and truly green energy plan.

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