RENO, Nev. (AP) — Conservationists suing a federal agency over approval of a mine at the largest known U.S. deposit of lithium urged a judge Wednesday to issue a temporary restraining order blocking excavations they say would disturb sacred tribal burial grounds near the Nevada-Oregon line.
Overshadowed by conflict at a lithium mine planned north of Las Vegas where the government intends to declare a rare wildflower threatened or endangered, Lithium Nevada Corp.'s proposed Thacker Pass mine is emerging as a potentially bigger battleground in the debate over environmental trade-offs tied to President Joe Biden's push for renewable energy.
Lithium is a key component in electric vehicle batteries.
Lawyers for the mine, the Bureau of Land Management and four conservation groups opened their arguments Wednesday morning before U.S. District Judge Miranda Du in Reno as protesters rallied outside.
The critics say the federal agency violated environmental laws in a December rush to approve the mine in the final days of the Trump administration.
The Thacker Pass mine is planned on 28 square miles (72 square kilometers) of federal land above an extinct volcano formed millions of years ago about 25 miles (40 kilometers) south of the Nevada-Oregon line. It’s projected to produce 1,000 jobs during construction and 300 once completed, generating $75 million in state and local tax revenue over a decade.
The conservationists said in a lawsuit filed earlier this year that some of the region’s most essential and irreplaceable sage grouse habitat could be lost if the mine is built. They say the bureau also has dismissed potential harm to golden eagles and destruction of pronghorn antelope habitat.
They joined claims in a separate suit filed by a longtime Nevada rancher that the bureau also erroneously concludes no federally protected Lahontan cutthroat trout exist in the streams that will be affected.
The project recently won an unexpected endorsement from a respected, longtime environmental watchdog of mining operations in Nevada who concluded “the impacts from this mine are relatively benign.”
“The environmental value of this lithium producing mine, however, is enormous,” said Glenn Miller, a retired professor at the University of Nevada, Reno.
Global demand for lithium is forecast to triple by 2025, Lithium Nevada said in recent court filings. The proposed mine is the only one in the nation on the drawing board that can help meet that demand, it said.
“Delay of this mitigation disturbing less than half an acre would halt development of the largest and most advanced lithium mine in the U.S. with no alternative, eliminating the only currently known domestic source of lithium to meet demands for combatting climate change and important to national security,” the company’s lawyers wrote in recent court filings.
U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm said during a visit to Nevada last month the Biden administration wants to see lithium needed for electric cars to be mined “in a responsible way” that respects the environment and Native American tribes.
“It can be done in a way that respects Indigenous communities. It can be done in a way that respects the environment,” she said. “It’s just got to be done in the right way.”