BLM approves Thacker Pass Lithium mine near Winnemucca, Nevada

The area where Lithium Nevada proposes to develop the Thacker Pass Lithium mine - photo: Lithium Nevada

Today, the Humboldt River Field Office of the US Bureau of Land Management issued a Record of Decision (RoD) approving the Thacker Pass Lithium Mine proposed by Lithium Nevada Corporation. The project would include 5,700 acres of public lands within the project area located approximately 17 miles northwest of Orovada and 53 miles north-northwest of Winnemucca in Humboldt County.

The ROD selects “Alternative A” from the EIS, which is Lithium Nevada’s preferred alternative. The plan was revised in December of 2020 to make corrections requested by the BLM and Nevada Department of Environmental Protection. According the BLM, those revisions did not substantially change the plan as proposed.

In July of 2020, Tim Crowley, vice president of government and community relations for Lithium Nevada, gave a presentation on the Thacker Pass project to the Legislative Committee on Energy. Crowley said the mine will be able to meet all US lithium demand and enable the US to become a net exporter of the mineral largely used in rechargeable batteries.

“We have a very special deposit. It’s one of the biggest on the planet,” Cowley told lawmakers during the online meeting. “The mine life is long. We can say with certainty it’s at least 40 years long and we can say with some high probability that it will go far beyond that.”

The Silver Peak lithium mine in Nevada is currently the nation’s only active lithium mine. This operation has been producing lithium from Clayton Valley water, 20 miles southwest of Tonapah, since the mid-1960s.  The Albemarle Corporation based in Charlotte, North Carolina now operates the mine.

Like lithium mines in Argentina and Chile, the Silver Peak mine extracts lithium from salt flat brine. The Thacker Pass project is different in that the lithium is entrained in clay-like material associated with an ancient super-volcano. An open pit is proposed with the remediation objective of back filling the hole.

In the ROD, the BLM concluded the mine will pose no significant impact.

“Alternative A is not anticipated to affect any threatened or endangered species or significant scientific, cultural or historical resources, as these resources are either not present or the effects will be mitigated.”

In reaction to the mine’s approval, Kelly Fuller, energy and mining campaign director for the Western Watersheds Project says the mine “will strip-mine thousands of acres of important habitat for greater sage-grouse and other wildlife.”

“It could also push a wildlife species that has not been found anywhere else on Earth to extinction,” wrote Fuller in a press release. “Renewable energy and electric cars aren’t green if they destroy important habitat and drive wildlife extinct. The only thing that’s actually green about the Thacker Pass mine is the color of the money the project would make for its wealthy investors.”

Fuller contends that Thacker Pass is critically important to wildlife because it connects the Double H Mountains to the Montana Mountains, and provides lower-elevation habitat that greater sage-grouse and other wildlife need to survive the winter.

“It (the mine area) contains thousands of acres of priority habitat management area (PHMA), the most important type of greater sage-grouse habitat, yet BLM has exempted the mine from many legally required sage-grouse protections. The mine is sited in the danger zone for sage-grouse leks in the Montana Mountains, one of the most important sage-grouse strongholds in Nevada. Local springs are the only place in the world where the Kings River pyrg, a rare type of springsnail, are known to live. The mine could also cut off a pronghorn migration corridor,” wrote Fuller in response to the mine’s approval.

Timeline:

In the summer of 2019, Lithium Nevada Corporation (LNC) submitted a detailed plan for the Thacker Pass project in northern Humboldt County, Nevada to the BLM and Nevada Division of Environmental Protection (NDEP).

On February 5 of 2020, the BLM published a Notice of Intent to Prepare a Draft Environmental Statement (DEIS) for the mine. Once the notice of intent was published, the agency has 12 months or fewer to process the EIS under a Trump Administration executive order that mandates a one year timeline.

Hear a 2019 audio interview with Alexi Zawadzki, president of North America operations for Lithium Nevada.

On July 29, the Draft Environmental Impact Statement was published, which started a 45-day public comment period that ended on September 11.

Adding impetus to the approval of the mine is another Trump Administration executive order that gives the project strategic significance. Executive Order 13817 is dated December 20, 2017 and gives the Department of the Interior, in consort with the Department of Defense and other related agencies, the directive to create a list of critical minerals. Lithium is on the list.

To meet the NEPA decision deadline, a Record of Decision must have been issued by February 5 of this year. Lithium Nevada said it is prepared to begin a 2 year construction phase soon after.

Thacker Pass is at the southern rim of an ancient, massive volcano. Lithium Nevada has proposed an open pit lithium mine in the ancient caldera – image: 3d rendering, the Ally. Data from USGS Earth Explorer

Lithium Nevada has spent the last couple years refining a processing method in their Reno laboratory that will separate the lithium from the clay using sulfuric acid.

The Thacker Pass Project is unlike most mining projects in that it is proposed to be a carbon-neutral mine operation. In order to fulfill the objectives of processing ore using sulfuric acid and generating electric power, a sulfuric acid plant will be built on-site so that lithium can be leached, or dissolved, from the extracted ore during mining operations and the heat generated through the creation of sulfuric acid will be used to generate electricity.

“The Thacker Pass mine will be the first processing facility that uses sulfuric acid to extract lithium from sedimentary clay; however, sulfuric acid has been used to extract lithium from hard rock deposits for decades,” Alexi Zawadzki, CEO of Lithium Nevada wrote in email correspondence with the Ally. “Once the lithium is dissolved, it can be concentrated and purified to produce high-quality lithium compounds for batteries. Any excess acidity is neutralized to produce calcium sulfate (gypsum, also known as the main material in wall-board) and magnesium sulfate (Epsom salt).”

A panoramic view of the proposed Thacker Pass lithium mine in northern Humboldt County, Nevada – photo: Lithium Nevada

The Western Watersheds Project asserts that the Thacker Pass mine directly threatens the greater sage-grouse and other birds that rely on sagebrush, golden eagles and other raptors, Lahontan cutthroat trout, pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, pygmy rabbits, and the Kings River pyrg.

“The biodiversity crisis is every bit as dire as the climate crisis, and sacrificing biodiversity in the name of climate change makes no scientific or moral sense,” said Fuller. “Over the last 50 years, Earth has lost nearly two thirds of its wildlife. Habitat loss is the major cause. Humans can’t keep destroying important wildlife habitat and still avoid ecosystem collapse.”

According to the EIS, the project will employ approximately 1,000 employees during construction and 300 employees once fully operational.

The Ally is working to gather further reaction to the mine’s approval.

Previous reporting on the Thacker Pass project:

Thacker Pass Lithium Mine – Draft Environmental Impact Statement reaction

Lithium Nevada is on schedule to begin Thacker Pass construction in 2021, a carbon neutral mine

Lithium exploration science and mining – leading research has one foot in Nevada, the other in Argentina

Fort McDermitt Paiute Shoshone Tribe work flinty soil – sustainable economic development elusive in remote region of Nevada


Brian Bahouth is the editor of the Sierra Nevada Ally and a career public media journalist. Support his work.