Unearthing debates: Lithium, Northern Nevada and environmental clash

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In late September, two activists were fined about $50,000 for allegedly building portable bathrooms on public land in Northern Nevada. This fine represents the sometimes hostile atmosphere activists face as they attempt to stop the development of a lithium mine in Thacker Pass, or Peehee Mu’huh.

The Bureau of Land Management, or BLM, hit Max Wilbert and Will Falk with a fine for building latrines on public land without a permit. Wilbert, a 33-year-old activist, is one of a small number of committed protesters who have been camping since the federal government approved the mining project in mid-January. 

Wilbert said the campers were trying to act responsibly throughout the campaign to decrease environmental impacts of camping, while continuing to campaign to protect the land. For this reason, the temporary latrine structures were built on ground already impacted by human activity. 

Wilbert added that the latrines were constructed by protestors other than Falk and him after elders repeatedly requested them.

“How do you deal with human waste in a situation like that? How do people go to the bathroom? There’s no bathroom on site,” Wilbert said. According to Wilbert, at least a thousand individuals have come through the camp at some point during his stay, participating in Indigenous cultural events, camping and protests at the site.

Throughout the campaign, the BLM had been somewhat tolerant of the protestors as their activities had been thus far legal, according to Wilbert. Dispersed camping — in which someone sets up camp in an undeveloped area — is allowed where the protesters were staying. A ban on camping for more than two weeks has led individual activists to cycle through the camp, staying for a couple nights at a time in order to abide by the regulations. The construction of the latrines by the protesters, on the other hand, was directly against the rules, resulting in the BLM cracking down.

A ban on camping for more than two weeks has led individual activists to cycle through the camp, staying for a couple nights at a time in order to abide by the regulations.

When the BLM informed protesters that they needed a permit for the latrines, Wilbert said they reached out to try and obtain them. BLM spokesperson Heather O’Hanlon alleged that the protestors removed three structures but kept the latrines. Meanwhile, Wilbert and the other activists’ request to obtain a permit for the latrines was allegedly not given a response, leading him to believe officers in the BLM were not acting in good faith.

“They’re not happy about the opposition of this mine,” Wilbert said. “They’d rather people weren’t opposing this project.”

Peehee Mu’huh represents a rift in the environmental movement. Some, like Wilbert, do not believe the destruction of the pass is worth the lithium. Others believe the sacrifice must be made to stop climate change, as lithium is a core material needed for electric batteries.

BLM, the federal agency that owns the land, approved the permit for the mining project  Jan. 15, at the tail end of the Trump administration. Glenn Miller, an environmental activist and retired professor from the University of Nevada, Reno, commented on the rushed nature of the approval.

“It wasn’t just a coincidence that the results were produced five days before the Trump administration got out of office,” Miller said. Environmental groups such as the Great Basin Resource Watch formed a coalition and filed a preliminary injunction over the mine’s construction in a federal district court.

Furthermore, Peehee Mu’huh is home to a Sagebrush ecosystem, fostering drought resistant plants that can live for more than a century. The lithium mine, which would be the largest of its kind in the United States, will impact the endangered Sage Grouse and destroy an ecosystem largely otherwise untouched by industrial society, according to the Great Basin Resource Watch.

The mining company, Lithium Nevada, a subsidiary of Canadian company Lithium Americas, plans on using a form of open-pit mining, which involves digging trenches, extracting the lithium and using the leftover clay to fill in the previous trench before moving on. Lithium Nevada’s project area extends for approximately 18,000 acres of land. This includes an almost 2-mile-square-foot area of disturbance. The process includes pumping up to 1.7 billion gallons of water a year, which the company purchased from neighboring farmland, according to Miller. 

“We expect all mining to cause problems. And surface mining is pretty disruptive,” Miller added. These sentiments were shared by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency project manager Jean Prijatel, who voiced concern in January that antimony and other heavy metals would eventually get into the groundwater in a letter to the BLM.

Lithium Nevada’s project area extends for approximately 18,000 acres of land. This includes an almost 2-mile-square-foot area of disturbance.

But the court case that asked the company to delay digging due to limited Indigenous voice in the project was denied in early September, which the group intends on appealing. An earlier lawsuit, launched by a handful of environmental organizations, is also in motion. 

“Even if the lawsuits that are happening right now are successful, it won’t stop the mine forever. I don’t think that legal arguments in court are the answer,” Wilbert said. “I also don’t think direct action is the answer. I think the answer lies in a combination of different tactics, including those two and beyond.”

At the heart of the divide among environmentalists is the question of how the U.S.will stop climate change. Some believe that in order to patch the gaping wound of the ongoing climate crisis, consumer changes must be made. By shifting consumption patterns to new, greener choices, the worst effects of climate catastrophe can be stopped while still preserving capitalism. According to this field of thought, new technology and clean energy alternatives can solve the problem at hand. 

At the heart of the divide among environmentalists is the question of how the U.S.will stop climate change.

Miller said he is in support of the mining project. For 40 years, the former professor has been an otherwise outspoken critic of the mining industry.

“If we don’t have lithium, there’s really no way we’re going to get rid of that hydrocarbon emission from automobiles,” Miller said. Transportation represents almost a third of all greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, due to fossil fuel burning vehicles. Electric batteries are essential for both electric vehicles and energy storage.

Lithium America’s marketing is rich with these claims — a section of their website is titled “Lithium for a Clean Future.”

But many of those pushing for more domestic lithium aren’t living in the places that will see the impacts of the mine. Some of the critics of the mining project are those whose ancestral homelands include Thacker Pass.

The People of Red Mountain or Atsa koodakuh wyh Nuwu is a group made up of Fort McDermitt Paiute Shoshone Tribe descendants who oppose the mine. The McDermitt reservation is located about 40 miles away from the pass, the Paiute/Shoshone name being Peehee Mu’huh. The People of Red Mountain oppose the mine because for them, Peehee Mu’huh is the traditional land of their people. In their eyes, the development of an open-pit mine is at odds with Indigenous sovereignty. Daranda Hinkey, secretary of the group, said the People of Red Mountain consider themselves traditionalists.

In April, in response to a petition brought forth by the People of Red Mountain, the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribal Council withdrew their agreement with Lithium Nevada unanimously. At its 2021 midyear conference, the National Congress of American Indians voted to oppose the Thacker Pass Lithium Mine.

Hinkey has intermittently camped at Thacker Pass during the protests. She returned to the McDermitt reservation to be closer to the Protect Thacker Pass campaign after studying environmental science and policy at Southern Oregon University.

“The weather is really extreme up there — it’s really windy. It’s really hot or it’s really cold. That kind of makes me nervous,” Hinkey said. “If incinerators are gonna be burning 24 hours a day, for sulfuric acid leaching out the lithium from the clay, all that wind goes towards the ranching communities, the tribal communities.”

The mine would require a constant supply of sulfuric acid to extract the lithium from the clay, which must be shipped to the site daily. Emissions from shipping trucks, as well as sulfuric acid incinerators running constantly, would be introduced in the region.

“Since time immemorial, there’s been a relationship with the land and … without the land, there is no culture,” she said. With the willow collected from the land, they make cradle boards, and with eagle feathers, they conduct ceremonies, Hinkey said. During the pandemic, Indigenous communities collected medicinal plants from Peehee Mu’huh. With approval of the project, these cultural actions would be more difficult for decades to come. The mine project has a life of 41 years, and potentially, the lithium deposit would be enough to last 100 years, according to Miller.

Thacker Pass became government property after Indigenous inhabitants were removed by soldiers and brought to reservations. The McDermitt tribal members are descended from those who were able to hide from soldiers in Thacker Pass, according to a statement published by the People of Red Mountain in the Sierra Nevada Ally.

“It is BLM land, but I think other Native people would think otherwise,” Hinkey said. 

On Sept. 12, a large gathering occurred to remember those killed in a massacre in 1856. In an Instagram video, Hinkey read from the autobiography of a soldier who describes the massacre of Paiute people, including women and children, in Peehee Mu’huh. The Pauite name for the Pass comes from “rotten moon,” as the region where they found the remains was shaped like a crescent. The soldier describes the murders, and says Charlie Thacker, the sheriff whom Thacker Pass is named after, asked to keep two Paiute babies who survived. 

This evidence is part of a legal strategy to halt the mine. While the BLM and Lithium Americas hold that the massacre happened outside of the proposed dig site, the Protect Thacker Pass campaign argues that this site falls under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. This means that digging would have to be stopped under a federal legislation that protects burial sites for Indigenous people of America.

Wilbert suggested a different perspective when considering green energy goals.

“We need to think more deeply and push back not just against the fossil fuel industry, but against all extractive industries that are destroying the planet,” Wilbert said. He believes the lithium mine will primarily benefit billionaires, while still harming the environment.

“The solution is to consume dramatically less,” Hinkey said. Even if lithium mines extract on schedule, according to Hinkey, oil and gas will continue to be consumed, and other essential battery elements such as cobalt will need to be mined elsewhere at a faster rate. 

This perspective provides a different framework for environmentalism. For years, personal action has been highlighted as the solution: making less waste, recycling, eating less meat and using reusable water bottles. Switching to electric cars is another part of this approach, a consumer choice among many offered for people who like to feel green.

Decades of ‘individual choice’ rhetoric hasn’t gotten us closer to solving climate change, the trash problem or even the massive destruction that comes with building mines. If we still consume at the rate Westerners do, it’s likely ecological collapse will continue to march forward. 

Decades of ‘individual choice’ rhetoric hasn’t gotten us closer to solving climate change, the trash problem or even the massive destruction that comes with building mines.

Wilbert said despite missing his partner, he knew this was a long fight when he got into it, and alongside Falk, intends on challenging the fine.

We see this as just a tactic to distract us, to make us spend time on this type of side issue when we’re really trying to stop the mine,” Wilbert said. “We’re not planning to leave this site until it’s protected. We’re not going to allow there to be a mine here.”

Contact Sage Alexander at [email protected].

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