Nevada mine-tipped Silicon Valley of Lithium-breaks ground amid indigenous opposition

The developer company, Lithium Americas Corp, plans to produce 80,000 metric tons annually of battery-quality Lithium carbonate to meet America’s current demand for Lithium.



Construction has begun in Thacker Pass Lithium mine in northern Nevada of the United States, which is tipped to be the “Silicon valley of the Lithium” for it (Nevada) contains the largest reserves of the metal used in the manufacture of Electric vehicle (EV) batteries in the country.

Once operational, the Thacker Pass Lithium mine would be America’s largest Lithium mine and is part of scores of projects that could shift Nevada toward a Lithium economy besides having far-reaching implications for America’s economy.

The grounds for construction of the Lithium mine were cleared after a US federal court denied opponents’ requests for an injunction as environmental activists contend that the project threatens the delicate ecosystems of the north Nevada region- home to sage-grouse, a plump bird whose population is on decline.

The Thacker Pass project in northern Nevada was mired in a protracted legal battle but now appears to be moving ahead as far as its construction is concerned with strong bipartisan support and hefty federal backing.

In a statement this month, Lithium Americas Corp , a mining company headquartered in Vancouver, Canada, which is going to develop the Thacker pass mine said that its “workers were drilling at the site and building infrastructure, including water pipelines”. The developer company plans to produce 80,000 metric tons annually of battery-quality Lithium carbonate to meet America’s current demand for Lithium

As the demand for Electric Cars soars worldwide, including the US, General Motors had announced earlier this year that it would “invest $650m” in Lithium Americas if the legal and regulatory hurdles were cleared by the mine project.

Boosting domestic critical minerals production key to “outcompete” China.

Once operational, the mine project is also expected to meet President Joe Biden’s climate goals as nations strive for clean energy sources and also attempt to move away from fossil fuels.

Thacker Pass is the largest-known Lithium deposit in the US and has emerged as a key component of the Biden administration to secure domestic minerals to manufacture batteries for electric vehicles.

Being the world’s second-largest contributor to greenhouse gases, America needs to move away from fossil fuels and transition to clean energy sources and address global warming and climate change. Thacker Pass mine is one such component of this transition to green energy.

Moreover, Lithium is one of the “critical” minerals necessary to support the American clean energy economy and it has also become crucial for the United States to “boost” domestic “critical minerals for “outcompeting” China.

Thacker Pass mine part of ‘Lithium loop’

The Thacker Pass mine, now under construction, is part of a larger developmental effort called “Lithium loop” underway throughout Nevada state to support production and recycling of EV batteries.

Moreover, Nevada is currently home to the only Lithium mine in the United States — the Silver Peak mine. It is being operated by North Carolina-based chemicals company Albemarle Corp. It began its operations in the 1960s.

The Silver Peak mine produces Lithium from brine extracted from the Clayton Valley basin. It is currently seeing a surge of activity as in 2021; Albemarle announced plans to double production by 2025 to meet growing demand for EV battery minerals besides exploring the use of clay to make lithium.

Resistance by People of Red Mountain and Environmental Concerns

However, the project has drawn stiff resistance from the local indigenous called People of Red Mountain that is resisting the mine at Thacker Pass.

The group calls the crescent moon-shaped pass “Peehee Mu’huh”, meaning “rotten moon”, in reference to the 19th-century massacre of Indigenous people in the area. They, including the Environmental activists while voicing their concerns have been arguing that the extraction of lithium for the “energy transition” was an “absurd” choice as its extraction would destroy ecosystems rather than preserve them for future generations.

It is worth noting that the Thacker Pass mine was first approved in the final days of former President Donald Trump’s administration. However, soon its approval was challenged by the indigenous groups and organisations like Western Watersheds Project, one of the groups that filed the motion for an injunction to stop the project. Last month, however, a judge ruled mostly in favour of the mining company thus clearing the way for construction of Thacker Pass mine.

The group, including the environmentalists, have been arguing that the construction of the Lithium mine would destroy wildlife habitat, including that of “sage-grouse, a plump bird with a fanned tail” that faces population decline. Besides, it is argued that the construction of the mine would “strip away vegetation” that provides a major food source for antelope, deer and sage-grouse.

Favourable ruling but environmental concerns remain

While Thacker Pass mine is headed for construction and development, the legal battle over the mine is still brewing as the environmental concerns still need to be addressed by the developer company.

The protracted battle and resistance also highlight the concerns of environmental groups, tribes, and even ranchers about “potential impacts to surrounding water quality and habitat for vulnerable species” like the greater sage grouse.

Last month, U.S. District Judge Miranda Du issued a ruling that largely upheld the federal approval of the mine despite multiple legal challenges. But Du also remanded the decision to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to revisit a portion of its environmental analysis.

The judge did so after finding that BLM had violated federal law by failing to validate that Lithium Americas had the right to dump waste and tailings on about 1,300 acres at the site in Humboldt County.

Patrick Donnelly, the Center for Biological Diversity’s Great Basin director, quoted by Greenwire in an article said that he’s tracking more than 70 lithium projects throughout Nevada in various stages — mining claims, announcements around exploration and firm proposals — but that only Thacker Pass and Rhyolite Ridge are moving forward through the federal regulatory process.

Open-pit mines, he said , bring with them threats to water quality and impacts on wildlife. He spent five years fighting Rhyolite Ridge over its potential impacts to the yellow-flowered Tiehm’s buckwheat, which was deemed endangered late last year (Greenwire, Dec. 14, 2022). That project is now undergoing an environmental review, and a final decision is expected in 2024.

Lithium extraction is water intensive

Before embarking on the extraction of the Lithium reserves, the authorities need to take the ecological sensitivities of the region into account as lithium extraction from its ore involves excessive use of water, thus leading to water pollution.

As per one estimate, it takes approximately 2.2 million liters of water to produce one ton of lithium. The most common lithium mining technique in salt flats is through brine extraction, which though lower in CO2 emissions than hard rock mining, requires excessive land and water use.

500,000 water gallons yield one ton lithium

In Chile, which forms the ‘The Lithium Triangle’, 500,000 gallons of water yields one tonne of lithium. This triangle- an intersection of Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina- is believed to contain over 75 percent of the existing known lithium reserves

Apart from highlighting the “environmental justice” issues like “socio-environmental impacts of lithium mineral extraction”, experts and various studies have already pointed out that in regions already grappling shortage of clean water and accessibility, lithium water-mining techniques “could actually cause local water basins to be contaminated, and use an already scarce water supply meant for rural communities, livestock, and crops.”

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