A construction firm has pushed aside legal roadblocks and begun work on what is being called America’s largest lithium mine, a project backed by the Biden administration but opposed by leftist environmentalist groups and some American Indians.
Even as global demand soars given lithium’s key role in battery technology for electric cars and other uses, opponents of the northern Nevada mine have waged a fierce legal battle for more than 10 years.
General Motors agreed in January to invest $650 million in the mine, which is projected to provide batteries for 1 million electric vehicles per year.
On Wednesday, California’s left-leaning 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals turned down opponents’ emergency appeal to stop construction. It was the latest round of a decade-long legal battle over the northern Nevada site.
Workers broke ground a day earlier at the lithium mine at Thacker Pass, in Nevada’s Montana Mountains about 200 miles northwest of Reno and close to the Oregon border. The construction involves site preparation, drilling to evaluate soil, rock and groundwater, a water pipeline and other infrastructure development.
Bechtel Corp. is doing the work, said Lithium Nevada Vice President Tim Crowley.
Major construction will begin in the late summer or early fall. The first phase will take about 30 months to complete and will involve about 1,000 workers.
“Completion of phase 1 will allow Lithium Americas to produce 40,000 metric tons of lithium carbonate, which will be used in General Motors electric vehicles,” Mr. Crowley said, and a second phase will double the lithium output to 80,000 metric tons.
Nevada also is home to a Tesla “gigafactory” near Reno that produces lithium-ion batteries and electric vehicle motors. Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced plans in January to invest $3.6 billion to build an electric big-rig truck factory near Reno.
Neighboring California is phasing out the sale of gas-powered vehicles by 2035, and the move is expected to increase demand for electric vehicles even more.
Although the 9th Circuit’s ruling was a setback for opponents of the mine, it has not diminished what appears to be a campaign of legal warfare — the use of the courts for political ends.
Environmental opponents are continuing to challenge the legality of the permit issued by the Bureau of Land Management, which owns the mine site. The lawsuit claims the bureau did not authorize the use of the land for waste and tailings from the 18,000-acre mine site.
Two American Indian tribes, the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and the Summit Lake Paiute Tribe, submitted a request to the Interior Department to add Thacker Pass to the National Register of Historic Places.
The tribes say the area, which is mainly desert, is sacred and is used for gathering medicinal plants, hunting and fishing, and holding ceremonies for Paiute and Shoshone people.
The tribes said the area around the mine, though not the mine itself, was the site of an ancient intertribal massacre and a massacre of 50 Paiutes by federal troops in 1865. Declaring the land a national heritage site would preclude any mining.
The start of construction after some 10 years of studies and legal fights is a major victory for the administration and the company behind the mine, Lithium Americas, and its local subsidiary, Lithium Nevada.
“Starting construction is a momentous milestone for Thacker Pass and one we have been working towards for over a decade,” said Jonathan Evans, president and CEO of Canadian-based Lithium Americas. “We are excited about the prospect of generating economic growth in northern Nevada and playing a major role in the domestic lithium supply chain for electric vehicles.”
The circuit court ruling gave no reason for denying the injunction.
Attorneys for Lithium Americas and the Bureau of Land Management invoked the administration’s assertion that the lithium mine will support electric car batteries, which they said are needed to alleviate a “climate crisis.”
Justice Department attorneys said “lithium is used to manufacture electric batteries and vehicles, which help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”
Lithium Nevada’s attorneys said Thacker Pass will be the cornerstone for lithium used in car batteries. Lithium is “a critical mineral, according to President Biden and the Department of Interior, and will further the national interest in tackling the climate crisis.”
“The threat that China could cut off the U.S.’s supply of lithium needed for national security and to combat continuing climate-change impacts prompted President Biden’s Supply Chain Disruption Task Force to conclude that the U.S. must ‘invest immediately in scaling up a secure, diversified supply chain for high-capacity batteries,’” the company said in a recent court filing.
Talasi Brooks, a staff attorney for Western Watersheds Project, one of the groups that fought to block the project, said the mine will destroy sagebrush that grouse use for mating.
“It’s a truly unfortunate outcome for the land, wildlife and cultural resources of this area,” Ms. Brooks said of the court ruling. “Thacker Pass lithium mining will deal a major blow to a critical sage grouse population.”
Last year, Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican, questioned the Energy Department’s support for Lithium Americas. He cited reports that the company’s largest shareholder is Ganfeng Lithium, a company based in Jiangxi, China, and the third-largest global processor of lithium, which may have links to the government in Beijing.
Lithium Americas, based in Vancouver, British Columbia, announced last year that Ganfeng held only a minority interest in the company and did not affect company operations or direction. Ganfeng has no interest in the Thacker Pass project, the company said in a statement.
The 9th Circuit is expected to rule this month on the claim that the Bureau of Land Management did not authorize a waste dump and tailing site as part of the mine, but environmentalists fear time is not on their side.
“By the time our general appeal to the 9th Circuit is heard, irreversible damage to the environmentally and culturally sensitive area known as Thacker Pass will have occurred unnecessarily, if only a stay on the mine had been ordered,” said John Hadder, director of Great Basin Resource Watch.
Lithium Nevada’s Mr. Crowley said Thacker Pass was analyzed, designed and permitted through a decade-long process upheld by the courts.
“We’re confident that it will withstand any further appeal, and with the necessary approvals in place, we are now focused on constructing an environmentally responsible project that will play a major role in reducing our nation’s carbon emissions,” he told The Washington Times.
Lithium Nevada received a federal permit in January 2021, setting into motion a series of legal challenges, including one from a local rancher.
Edward Bartell, who owns 50,000 acres of land near Thacker Pass, brought the initial lawsuit. He cited concerns about waste from the use of sulfur in mining and processing.
One of the fringe environmental groups, Deep Green Resistance, has been a leading opponent of the mine and in the past has sent protesters to camp out at the site.
The Washington Times has reported that two Deep Green Resistance activists, Max Wilbert and Will Falk, were linked to the legal action and helped create several groups opposing the mine, including Protect Thacker Pass, and two American Indian protest groups, PeeHee MuHuh’ Warriors and People of Red Mountain. The Red Mountain activists are from the Fort McDermitt Reservation north of the mine.
Mr. Falk said on Facebook in January 2021 that stopping environmental destruction “will require direct, physical confrontation with those who destroy.”
The Deep Green Resistance website describes the group’s ideology as anarchist and Marxist-Leninist. It advocates for “a world without industrial civilization” that must be reached by “coordinated dismantling of industrial infrastructure.” The organization said it is “proudly Luddite in character” and believes humans do not need electricity.
Postings by group members support such figures and groups as Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Karl Marx and the Black Panther Party.