The fight to stop construction of what would be the largest lithium mine in the U.S. on land in northern Nevada that’s sacred to two indigenous groups has become the latest rallying cry for environmental justice. The mineral lithium is used to make rechargeable batteries for cars and many other products. Some groups that oppose fossil fuel extraction either support or have remained silent on this issue, but indigenous organizations have rallied to the cause.
Will Falk is an activist and an attorney who organized a protest camp at Thacker Pass, Nevada in January 2021 to oppose the lithium mine on the same day the Bureau of Land Management, or BLM, issued its final approval of the project. He co-founded the group Protect Thacker Pass, and is representing two tribes trying to stop construction of the mine. The group’s goal is to protect Thacker Pass for the inherent, inalienable value of its land, water, biodiversity and cultural importance.
Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Falk about opposition to the mine and the importance of the 1872 mining law that governs the extraction of valuable minerals on federal land.
WILL FALK: The Thacker Pass Lithium Project is a project sponsored by the Lithium Nevada Corporation. It was fast-tracked under a Trump-era secretarial order which forced the local Bureau of Land Management (BLM) office to permit this mine in less than a year.
It is, or would be, the largest lithium mine in the U.S. and the largest open-pit lithium mine in the world. The U.S. government accountability office has issued studies that say that these kinds of projects usually take between 3.5 and 4 years to permit, but the Thacker Pass Lithium Project was permitted in less than a year. Because they were moving so fast to permit this project they made a number of mistakes. Those mistakes have been challenged by a local rancher in the area, four regional environmental groups and now native American tribes.
I’ve represented the Reno Sparks Indian Colony and the Summit Lake Paiute Tribe, but the main problem the tribes have with the project is that the Bureau of Land Management didn’t consult with any tribe prior to issuing the Thacker Pass permit.
And because they didn’t consult with any tribe, they failed to recognize that Thacker Pass is a very sacred place to Paiute and Shoshone people. They failed to recognize that it’s the site of two massacres. The Bureau of Land Management has refused to delay construction or postpone the mine’s operation so they can engage in meaningful consultation with the tribes about how to deal with the fact that there’s this massacre site in Thacker Pass.
MELINDA TUHUS: Is the BLM the final decision-maker on this project? Are there any other federal agencies involved?
WILL FALK: No, so this – it’s really important to understand the setting and context for the Thacker Pass lithium mine project. This project is happening exclusively on federal public land administered the Bureau of Land Management. There’s a federal law – the 1872 General Mining Law – that offered really cheap mining leases and permits to American prospectors who located valuable minerals on public land.
That law says that the highest and best use of American public land is mining, so it doesn’t matter if Native Americans say that this place is the most sacred place in the world to them, if a mining corporation finds valuable minerals under that land, under American law, the federal government has to issue that mining corporation a permit and they have a right to mine that land.
MELINDA TUHUS: Does the company have to consult the indigenous tribes in the area?
WILL FALK: The company does not have any obligation to consult with tribes. While the government, when they consult with tribes, or the public, in situations like these, consultation is merely checking a box of saying we sat down and heard your concerns. They only have to even respond to the concerns as long as the agency deems them to be “substantive.”
As long as those concerns pertain to some aspect of the project that they have an obligation to consider. But the government does not have to change projects based off these consultations and they certainly do not have to deny a permit based off a tribe saying, we absolutely do not want this project.
MELINDA TUHUS: Will Falk, this is not a fossil fuel project. It’s a project deemed essential for electrifying everything. People say there are trade-offs and in this case, too bad for the indigenous people. What do you say about that?
WILL FALK: Yeah, first of all, let me be very clear. It’s absolutely essential that we cut fossil fuel emissions and greenhouse gas emissions. No one opposing the Thacker Pass lithium mine disputes that. But I would take umbrage with the notion that this is not a fossil fuel project. This is absolutely a fossil fuel project and fossil fuels are absolutely essential to mining any sort of mineral, lithium included. So if a premise of the whole alternative energy movement is that these so-called alternative energies are going to replace fossil fuels, when your whole mining process depends on fossil fuels, it’s unlikely that you’re going to replace fossil fuels by these kinds of projects.
For more information, visit Protect Thacker Pass’ website at www.protectthackerpass.org.
For the best listening experience and to never miss an episode, subscribe to Between The Lines on your favorite podcast app or platform: Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, Tunein + Alexa, Castbox, Overcast, Podfriend, iHeartRadio, Castro, Pocket Casts, RSS Feed.
Or subscribe to our Between The Lines and Counterpoint Weekly Summary.