Today a coalition of conservation and public accountability groups filed federal litigation in the District of Nevada that challenges the Bureau of Land Management’s approval of the Thacker Pass Lithium Mine.
The Trump Administration fast tracked National Environmental Policy Act assessments and mandated that environmental reviews be completed in less than one year.
The Thacker Pass mine was approved on January 15 of this year, just days before the end of Donald Trump’s presidency.
“Renewable energy and electric cars aren’t green when they depend on mining that destroys important wildlife habitat and causes extinction,” said Kelly Fuller, Energy and Mining Campaign Director for Western Watersheds Project. “The Thacker Pass mine will devastate greater sage-grouse and other wildlife. We need to transition to renewables in an environmentally sustainable, rather than an environmentally problematic, way.”
The Reno-based Great Basin Resource Watch is a plaintiff in the lawsuit, along with the Western Watersheds Project, Basin and Range Watch, and Wildlands Defense.
John Hadder is executive director of Great Basin Resource Watch and said there are numerous reasons for the legal complaint, but in a broad sense, the lawsuit focuses on the Environmental Impact Statement.
“The environmental review is poorly done and is illegal in our view,” Hadder said by phone. “It appears as though the Bureau of Land Management is in violation of its own regulations, violation of its own resource management plan. We even told them, ‘hey,’ early on in the process, ‘you’re ignoring your own resource management plan,’ and they made no effort to make any changes.”
Hadder expressed concern that the EIS process mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act was conducted during the pandemic, which muted community participation in the process. He said the online scoping sessions were inadequate.
“It definitely was pushed through quickly. And during COVID when the community was not able to really deliberate that well about the mine and its effects, but they moved it along anyway, and this is what we saw throughout the Trump Administration,” Hadder said.
Community members from Orovada and Kings River Valley have expressed concerns with the mine that they feel are not addressed in the EIS.
“I am opposed to the Lithium mine being proposed for Thacker Pass,” said Wendelyn Muratore, Kings River Valley resident and member of Great Basin Resource Watch. “The impacts to our air quality, destruction of wildlife and habitat, dumping of hazardous chemicals, tightening of our water supply, increase in traffic at 75 semi trucks per day, and damage to our ranching and farming should make one stop and rethink this mine. Our communities along with our way of life and livelihoods should not be made to suffer in the name of ‘progress.’”
The plaintiffs argue that Thacker Pass is critically important to wildlife because it connects the Double H Mountains to the Montana Mountains. They say the pass also provides lower-elevation habitat that wildlife need to survive the winter and other impacts on sensitive and protected species.
“The Bureau of Land Management must manage Thacker Pass and connecting mountains to preserve essential sage grouse habitat, old growth sagebrush, golden eagle nests, endemic springsnails and additional wildlife,” said Kevin Emmerich, Co-Founder of Basin and Range Watch. “The unique viewshed and dark skies should be managed to retain the existing character of the landscape. The open pit, waste rock facilities, noise and water use required for the Thacker Pass Lithium Mine all would cause critical damage to a remaining stronghold for local wildlife, and the viewshed will be damaged forever.”
Other wildlife potentially impacted by the mine include the endangered Lahontan cutthroat trout, bighorn sheep, and pygmy rabbits.
“It’s a very it’s an environmentally sensitive area too, which means that they needed to take more care,” said John Hadder. “They need to take a lot of care and how to address the concerns on how it’s going to affect the ecosystems and affect the community and they didn’t. They just rushed over things.”
Biodiversity is at issue
“The Montana Mountains landscape has long been identified as a key area for biodiversity protection in Nevada,” said Katie Fite, Public Lands Director for Wildlands Defense. “Along with adjacent Oregon wild lands, it constitutes one of the last big blocks of the sagebrush sea free of development. Pygmy rabbits, migratory birds and other wildlife suffered a major blow from wildfire a decade ago and habitat has not yet recovered. Now this mega-mine will obliterate vital remaining sagebrush. The mine’s regional disturbance footprint will wallop struggling wildlife populations, causing new declines.”
Today’s legal complaint asks the court to take the mine approval process back to square one and more fully consider its impacts. Hadder contends that communities need to have a fund for independent assessment of a mine’s impacts. The EIS process largely relies on the mining company and the contractors it hires to assess environmental impact.
For Hadder, frontline communities like King River Valley and Orovada deserve an independent analysis of the mine.
“We think that if they really looked at this project correctly that they would see that the concerns, the issues under environment, particularly with the sensitive habitats and their migration routes, sage grouse, and the community concerns are potentially unresolvable,” Hadder said.
“But you can’t understand the full consequences of this mine by looking at the existing Environmental Impact Statement, and that is exactly what an environmental impact statement is supposed to do. It is supposed to give the public a complete picture of the consequences of this mining project, good and bad, and it doesn’t do that.”
Brian Bahouth is a career public media journalist and editor of the Sierra Nevada Ally. Support his work.