Tribes demand pause on lithium mine development



A U.S. federal judge heard arguments against a projected lithium mine on Friday by lawyers from Native American tribes, who said the mine would cause irreparable damage to sacred native lands.

The Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, the Burns Paiute Tribe and the residents of Red Mountain were allowed to join a lawsuit to block Lithium Nevada’s Thacker Pass mine project in July. Now the tribes are seeking a preliminary injunction to stop any development of the mine while the lawsuit is pending.

Earlier this year, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) approved the Thacker Pass mine five days before the end of Donald Trump’s presidency. It was one of many projects accelerated in the last days of the Trump administration to advance energy and mining development on public land, including a copper mine in Arizona that was put to build on the sacred lands of the Native Americans before the development of the mine was finally abandoned.

The Reno-Sparks Indian Colony joined the lawsuit after receiving a letter from the BLM denying its request for government-to-government consultation under the National Historic Preservation Act, which gives tribes the right to consult when a project affects areas of religion or culture. importance to the tribe.

In the traditional language of the colony, Thacker Pass is called “Peehee mu’huh” which translates to “rotten moon” in honor of the ancestors of the colony who were slaughtered in an area of ​​the moon shaped pass.

“The BLM Winnemucca district office needs to understand that Thacker Pass is an area of ​​use shared by a number of tribes,” the letter from the tribe read. consultation request. “Just because the regional tribes were isolated and forced to settle on reserves relatively far from Thacker Pass does not mean that these regional tribes do not have cultural ties to the pass.”

Tribal lawyers argued that BLM had failed to provide reasonable outreach to all tribes in the area likely to be affected by the mine, adding that the agency had only sent letters “initiating a consultation formal ”only to three tribes in the region who had not responded.

“Our main argument is that this is… one of the largest open pit lithium mines in the region and the largest lithium mine in the United States and BLM needed to alert and engage in meaningful consultation with more of these three tribes. There are at least 15 tribes in the region who attach religious and cultural importance to Peehee mu’huh“Will Falk, counsel for the tribes, said at a press conference after the hearing.

“They actually did not participate in any consultation. They just sent these letters, ”Falk said. “This happened in 2020, during Covid, and these tribes obviously did not respond. “

During the pandemic, tribes faced theft and vandalism, in addition to the pandemic. Many small tribes in Nevada have focused their limited resources on responding to the pandemic and fight for help from the federal government.

Tribal lawyers noted that many tribal offices, including the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe, were closed for most of 2020.

Lawyers for the federal government argued that federal land managers were following processes used in the past to determine which projects required government-to-government consultation, adding that the tribes had failed to alert the BLM of the sacredness of the land. in previous projects.

“It’s not a very good argument,” Falk said. “Because all these other projects have not consulted all these other tribes that attach cultural and religious importance to these lands, either.”

In a environmental review on Thacker Pass, the BLM acknowledged that the proposed lithium mine site contained more than a thousand cultural resource sites that would be damaged by the development of the mine, the vast majority of the remains of obsidian used to make arrowheads and other tools. The review also found that 52 historic properties eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places would be affected.

The Far Western Anthropological Research Group is currently seeking a BLM permit for archaeological excavations at Thacker Pass to study historical artifacts in the area.

However, lawyers for the tribes argue that the excavation “could damage human remains and artifacts that archaeologists are looking for.”

Lithium Nevada attorney Laura Granier assured the court that any discovery of human remains would halt all work on the mine, due to US national grave protection and repatriation law.

Chief Justice Miranda Du of the U.S. District Court in Nevada, who heard arguments from the case on Friday, said she would likely decide whether BLM and Lithium Nevada can hire an archaeological contractor to catalog and remove cultural artifacts as soon as possible. next week.

Tribe members and other indigenous rights activists fear that as climate change becomes more evident, the push to develop lithium mines in the United States on federal lands considered culturally important to Native Americans. will only grow.

Growing demand for electric cars and clean energy technology has led mining companies to ramp up lithium production in Nevada, which is home to the only large-scale lithium mine in the United States.

The Thacker Pass mine would produce around 800 tonnes of battery-grade lithium metal per year during the first four years of mine life, according to the environmental review.

The Biden administration has the power to halt or suspend certain projects at stages in the licensing process, as it did with the proposed Arizona copper mine. But projects like Thacker Pass that have already obtained permits can be difficult to stop.

State lawmakers are also seeing lithium mining and clean energy technology as a way to diversify the economy. The mine would employ approximately 1,000 people during construction and nearly 300 full-time positions when fully operational. The BLM estimated that the mine could generate $ 17 million in tax revenue and $ 34 million in additional economic activity in the state.


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