Today, four conservation and public accountability groups filed for a preliminary injunction in the Federal District Court in Reno that asks the court to prohibit construction of the Thacker Pass lithium mine.
Fast-tracked through the National Environmental Policy Act process in fewer than 12 months under a Trump Administration executive order, the mine was approved by the Bureau of Land Management in January 2021, a mere five days before Joe Biden took office. The four groups filed federal litigation challenging the mine’s approval in February 2021.
“We have been very reasonable about this,” said Kelly Fuller, Energy and Mining Campaign director for Western Watersheds Project. “We talked in good faith with the Bureau of Land Management and the mining company for several weeks, trying to negotiate an agreement that mining activities would not begin until the merits of this case could be heard by the court. But talks failed, which has left us no choice but to ask the court to step in and halt the destruction.”
Resource studies at the mine site are expected to begin on or soon after June 23, 2021. They will include surface disturbance, mechanized trench excavation, and removal of wildlife habitat and vegetation. As a result, the groups say, cultural sites are likely to be disturbed before the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribes and other tribes will have been properly consulted. According to Lithium Nevada, the permit to perform the cultural work is still pending and will not be issued until tribal consultations are completed.
Mine construction is planned to begin in the fall, according to Lithium Nevada. The groups request that the federal court block ground and habitat disturbance operations until the case can be fully heard on its merits.
“People in the affected communities have been calling for assurance that Thacker Pass will be protected during litigation,” said John Hadder, executive director of Great Basin Resource Watch. “If we do not act now, Lithium Nevada will destroy significant cultural areas and habitat before the courts will have determined whether the mine should be allowed under law.”
The groups contend that Thacker Pass is critically important to wildlife. They say the proposed mine site is an important habitat linkage between the Double H Mountains to the Montana Mountains and that the pass also provides lower-elevation habitat that wildlife need to survive the winter.
Lithium Nevada responded by saying it purposely designed its project away from Critical Habitat in the Montana Mountains.
The coalition of groups point to the fact that the proposed mine site contains thousands of acres of federally designated “Priority Habitat” for the greater sage-grouse and two pronghorn migration corridors.
In response, Lithium Nevada emphasizes that they are participating in the state’s SETT (Sagebrush Ecosystem Technical Team) program to mitigate Sage Grouse impacts in Priority Habitat.
In addition to concerns about sage grouse, the groups also assert that the mine will disturb access to food for golden eagles nesting in the nearby cliffs and canyons and that local springs are the only place in the world where the Kings River pyrg, a rare type of springsnail, are known to live.
“The enormity of the irreversible destruction Lithium Nevada’s giant mine would cause to the region’s wildlife, water, natural values and cultural sites is hard to comprehend,” said Katie Fite, director of public lands at Wildlands Defense. “BLM’s slipshod analysis only scratched the surface, and habitat for a great diversity of species is jeopardized. It also flies in the face of BLM promises to preserve sage-grouse, whose numbers have declined by 80%, with the Great Basin population particularly imperiled.”
Today’s motion for preliminary injunction and the prior legal complaint allege that the Bureau of Land Management violated federal laws when it approved the Thacker Pass Lithium Mine’s Plans of Operation on January 15, 2021, including the National Environmental Policy Act and Federal Land Policy and Management Act.
“The Bureau of Land Management’s fast-tracked approval of the Thacker Pass Lithium Mine endangers important old-growth sagebrush and aquatic ecosystems of the Great Basin,” said Kevin Emmerich, director of Basin and Range Watch. “New ground disturbance could impact sagebrush-dependent species like pygmy rabbit and sage-grouse and eventually enable an open-pit mine that will push endemic springsnails and Federally protected Lahontan cutthroat trout closer to extinction.”
The four groups further argue that BLM failed in its duty to protect public resources by allowing a mine that they argue will be “a source of groundwater pollution for at least 300 years and for not requiring long-term financial assurances.”
Lithium Nevada refutes the allegation and says the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection (NDEP) is currently reviewing mitigation options to avoid groundwater degradation.
“NDEP will not permit a project that allows for water degradation,” wrote Tim Crowley, vice president of Government & Community Relations for Lithium Nevada.