Construction begins on Nevada lithium mine despite fierce legal battles

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Pushing aside legal roadblocks, workers have begun construction work on what is being called America’s largest lithium mine, a project backed by the Biden administration but opposed by leftist environmentalist groups and some Native Americans.

Even as global demand has soared given lithium’s key role in battery technology for electric cars and other uses, opponents of the northern Nevada mine have waged a fierce legal battle aimed at blocking the project for more than 10 years. U.S. auto giant General Motors in January agreed to invest $650 million in the mine that, when completed, is projected to provide batteries for a million electric vehicles per year.

In a major setback for the critics, California’s left-leaning 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday turned down an emergency appeal from opponents to stop construction, the latest round of a decade-long legal battle over the northern Nevada site.

Ground-breaking work at the lithium mine close to the Oregon border began a day before the court ruling at Thacker Pass, in Nevada’s Montana Mountains located about 200 miles northwest of Reno. The construction involves site preparation, drilling to evaluate soil, rock and ground water, a water pipeline and other infrastructure development.

The work is being done out by the major construction firm Bechtel Corp., said Lithium Nevada Vice President Tim Crowley.

Major construction at the site will begin later this year in the late summer or early fall. The first phase will take about 30 months to complete and will involve around 1,000 workers.

“Completion of phase 1 will allow Lithium Americas to produce 40,000 metric tons of lithium carbonate, which will be used in General Motors electric vehicles,” Mr. Crowley said, noting a second phase will double the lithium output to 80,000 metric tons.

Nevada also is home to a Tesla “gigafactory” near Reno that produces lithium-ion batteries and electric vehicle motors. Tesla CEO Elon Musk also announced plans in January to invest $3.6 billion to build an electric big-rig truck factory near Reno.

Neighboring California is phasing out the sale of gas-powered vehicles by 2035, a move expected to increase demand even more for electric vehicles.

For the mine opponents, the circuit court ruling was a setback. But the ruling has not diminished what appears to be a campaign of legal warfare – the use of the courts for political ends – to stop the mine.

Despite the 9th Circuit decision, environmental opponents are continuing to challenge the legality of the permit issued by the federal Bureau of Land Management, which owns the mine site. The lawsuit alleges BLM did not authorize use of the site for waste and tailings from the 18,000-acre mine site.

Native American groups also are continuing to fight. Two tribes, the Reno Sparks Indian Colony and Summit Lake Paiute Tribe, submitted a request to the Interior Department to add Thacker Pass to the National Register of Historic Places.

The tribes claim the area, which is mainly desert, is sacred and used for gathering medicinal plants and for hunting and fishing, along with ceremonies for Paiute and Shoshone people.

The tribes also have claimed the area around the mine — though not the mine itself — was the site of an ancient inter-tribal massacre and a massacre of 50 Paiutes by federal troops in 1865. Declaring the land a national heritage site would preclude any mining.

The start of construction after some 10 years of studies and legal fights is a major victory for the administration and the company behind the mine, Lithium Americas, and its local subsidiary, Lithium Nevada.

“Starting construction is a momentous milestone for Thacker Pass and one we have been working towards for over a decade,” said Jonathan Evans, president and CEO of Canadian-based Lithium Americas. “We are excited about the prospect of generating economic growth in northern Nevada and playing a major role in the domestic lithium supply chain for electric vehicles.”

The circuit court ruling gave no reason for denying the injunction.

Industry ‘cornerstone’

Lawyers for Lithium Americas and the Bureau of Land Management, however, both invoked the administration’s assertion that the lithium mine will support electric car batteries needed to alleviate a “climate crisis.”

Justice Department lawyers argued that the mine is needed because “lithium is used to manufacture electric batteries and vehicles, which help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

In its filing, Lithium Nevada’s lawyers said Thacker Pass will be the cornerstone for lithium used in car batteries. Lithium is “a critical mineral, according to President Biden and the Department of Interior, and will further the national interest in tackling the climate crisis.”

“The threat that China could cut off the U.S.’s supply of lithium needed for national security and to combat continuing climate-change impacts prompted President Biden’s Supply Chain Disruption Task Force to conclude the that the U.S. must ‘invest immediately in scaling up a secure, diversified supply chain for high-capacity batteries,’” the company said in a recent court filing.

Talasi Brooks, a lawyer from Western Watersheds Project, one of the groups that fought to block the project, said the mine will destroy sagebrush used by grouse for mating.

“It’s a truly unfortunate outcome for the land, wildlife and cultural resources of this area,” Ms. Brooks said of the court ruling. “Thacker Pass lithium mining will deal a major blow to a critical sage grouse population.”

The Nevada mine also drew fire last year from Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican. He questioned the Energy Department’s support for Lithium Americas, citing reports the company’s largest shareholder is Ganfeng Lithium, the Jiangxi, China-based company that is the third largest global processor of lithium, which may have links to the Beijing government.

Last year the Vancouver-based Lithium Americas announced that Ganfeng held only a minority interest in the company and did not affect company operations or direction. Ganfeng has no interest in the Thacker Pass project, the company said in a statement.

Still battling

Environmental opponents are continuing to battle against the mine asserting in court filings that the federal Bureau of Land Management, which owns the mine site, did not authorize a waste dump and tailing site as part of the mine.

The 9th Circuit is expected to rule on that claim later this month, but opponents say they fear time is not on their side.]

“By the time our general appeal to the Ninth Circuit is heard, irreversible damage to the environmentally and culturally sensitive area known as Thacker Pass will have occurred unnecessarily, if only a stay on the mine had been ordered,” said John Hadder, director of Great Basin Resource Watch, an environmental group opposing the mine.

But Lithium Nevada’s Mr. Crowley said Thacker Pass was analyzed, designed and permitted through a decades-long process upheld by the courts.

“We’re confident that it will withstand any further appeal, and with the necessary approvals in place, we are now focused on constructing an environmentally responsible project that will play a major role in reducing our nation’s carbon emissions,” he told The Washington Times.

Lithium Nevada received a BLM permit in January 2021, setting in motion a series of legal challenges, including one from a local rancher who is opposing the mine.

Edward Bartell, a rancher who owns 50,000 acres of land near Thacker Pass, brought the initial lawsuit, citing concerns about waste from the use of sulfur in the mining and processing.

One of the fringe environmental groups, Deep Green Resistance, has been a leading opponent of the mine and has sent protesters to camp out at the site in the past.

The Washington Times previous has reported that two Deep Green Resistance activists, Max Wilbert and Will Falk, were linked to the legal action and helped create several groups opposing the mine, including Protect Thacker Pass, and two American Indian protest groups, PeeHee MuhHa’ Warriors and People of Red Mountain. The Red Mountain activists are from the Fort McDermitt Reservation north of the mine.

Mr. Falk said on Facebook in January 2021 that stopping environmental destruction “will require direct, physical confrontation with those who destroy.”

Deep Green Resistance, according to its website, describes its ideology as anarchist and Marxist-Leninist. The group advocates for “a world without industrial civilization” that must be reached by “coordinated dismantling of industrial infrastructure.” The organization describes itself as “proudly Luddite in character” and believes humans do not need electricity.

Postings by group members support such figures and groups as Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Karl Marx and the Black Panther Party.

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