Lithium mining isn’t new in Nevada, the Silver Peak mine near Tonopah started producing lithium carbonate in the 1960s; however, recent demand for lithium batteries has brought increased attention.
I first visited the proposed mine site at Thacker Pass in 2019 while also meeting with the former tribal leadership of the McDermitt Paiute Shoshone Tribe. The Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada (PLAN) engaged in the federal permitting process with our concerns at this time.
Today we see corporations and many elected officials greenwashing mining, saying that it is needed to mitigate climate change. Yet on the other hand, a narrative is surfacing that we need an immediate shut down of destructive industrial practices that people currently depend on, despite the understanding that it would primarily impact Black, Indigenous, and communities of color. But the answer isn’t just right or wrong here.
We know that mining is inherently destructive. This proposal would pollute water for a minimum of 300 years post-mining. The project would require an industrial sulfuric acid plant on site that would pollute the air and require additional extraction in other places. In fact, the United Nations Environmental Programme states that 10% of global climate change impacts are from the process of mining. We won’t mine our way out of climate change.
Part of the violence of mining is the destruction of cultural sites and continued harm to Indigenous communities. The Paiute name for Thacker Pass is Peehee Mu’huh which translates to rotten moon. This name references a massacre of Indigenous Peoples at the site at the hands of the US cavalry. Despite the well known local knowledge that there are ancestors’ remains at the site, the government and mining company deny the existence of graves. Increases in mining camps also increases the risk of more Missing and Murdered Indigenous, Women, Girls, and Two Spirit (MMIWG2S) as a primarily male workforce comes in with no ties to the rural or Indigenous communities nearby.
We also know that people are currently dependent on certain technologies that we need to move away from, but an immediate cessation without a transition plan would primarily hurt those who are most vulnerable. A path forward that centers both people and land is achievable. I’m not here to peddle utopias or easy solutions. What we need is a new path that’s not a fantasy of the past disconnected from social realities and blinded by romanticism, or a fantasy of Silicon Valley disconnected from natural realities and blinded by profit motives. This is about centering people as an essential part of the environment and having integrity to our responsibilities to land through a just transition which shifts power from corporations to people.
We need to 1) reduce demand and 2) prioritize recycling. We are not going to simply invent our way out of climate change. Instead, we need to do things like prioritize mass-transit and reduce travel needs rather than the luxury of single occupancy electric vehicles. An honest approach to addressing climate change means reducing energy demand in addition to changing energy sources. We need to guide our actions based on the public need and well being, not corporate greed through extractivism. This means shifting power from corporations to communities and mandating the end of overproduction and extraction of material through public mechanisms rather than placing the blame on individual people using products. As we reduce demand for minerals, we must also prioritize re-use and recycling before mining. According to analysis in Earthworks 2021 report “Just Minerals,” 95% recycling of the four key minerals in lithium batteries can be achieved with current technology. Scaling up recycling of lithium will require government intervention in that it is currently not profitable for corporations. Companies are therefore seeking new mining rather than recycling since it is cheaper for them.
We also need to change federal and state policy on mining. The General Mining Act of 1872 which is the primary federal law governing mining. This law was designed to promote settler colonization of the western United States and needs to be reformed. On the state level, PLAN has a number of priorities around impacts to water and communities rights.
If you want to learn more about a just transition to address climate change, and needed reforms we will be covering these topics in more detail on the last Thursday of the month at our PLAN monthly environmental justice meetings. Register to attend at bit.ly/enviromeeting.
Ian Bigley is a lifelong resident of Reno, Nevada (Washoe and Paiute lands). He is a graduate of the University of Nevada Reno, and works as the Mining Justice Organizer with the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada (PLAN).
Top photo caption and credit: Looking toward Kings River from Thacker Pass – photo: Ian Bigley
The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of the Sierra Nevada Ally. Our newsroom remains entirely independent of our opinion page. Published opinions further public conversation to fulfill our civic responsibility to challenge authority, act independently of corporate or political influence.