Science & Environment

Judge says digging can continue at lithium mine site near Oregon border

By Bradley W. Parks (OPB)
Bend, Ore. Sept. 4, 2021 12:56 a.m.

Legal action brought by Native American tribes and environmental groups sought to delay an archaeological survey at the proposed mining site.

The planned Thacker Pass mine is on the edge of the McDermitt Caldera, which resembles a human ear in this satellite image from Google Earth.

The planned Thacker Pass mine is on the edge of the McDermitt Caldera, which resembles a human ear in this satellite image from Google Earth.

Google Earth / Screenshot

A federal judge has rejected a legal effort to stop digging at the site of a planned lithium mine near the Oregon-Nevada border.


A group called Atsa Koodakuh Wyh Nuwu, or People of Red Mountain, formed from descendants of the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribes, joined with the Burns Paiute Tribe, Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and several environmental groups to try to halt archaeological surveys being conducted at the planned mining site.

The tribes argued the mine’s operator Lithium America Corp. and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which approved the project just before former President Donald Trump left office, had failed to properly consult them before digging.


U.S. District Judge Miranda Du on Friday denied the tribes’ motion, allowing the surveys to move forward. The court will rule on the case before construction begins.

“Primarily because the Tribes have not shown they are likely to prevail on their claim that BLM’s decision not to consult them on the Project was unreasonable or made in bad faith, have not presented sufficiently specific evidence of irreparable harm that will likely occur if the [archaeological survey] proceeds … the Court will deny the motion,” Du wrote.

It’s a major step forward for Lithium Americas, which aims to mine lithium primarily for lithium-ion batteries that are seen as a key part of the world’s energy future. The judge’s decision is also a significant blow to the tribes and environmental groups seeking to stop the mine’s construction altogether.

The project site is situated about an hour’s drive south of the Oregon state line in an area called Thacker Pass. It’s is known in the Paiute language as “Peehee Mu’huh” or “rotten moon,” according a earlier press statement from People of Red Mountain. It’s the site of a historic massacre of the tribes’ ancestors.

“To build a lithium mine over this massacre site in Peehee mu’huh would be like building a lithium mine over Pearl Harbor or Arlington National Cemetery,” the group wrote. “We would never desecrate these places and we ask that our sacred sites be afforded the same respect.”

The mine sits on the edge of the McDermitt Caldera, considered to be home to the largest lithium deposit in North America. A fact sheet distributed by Lithium Americas claims the mine will support up 1,000 temporary construction jobs and more than 300 permanent jobs in the area over the mine’s lifespan of 40-plus years.

The project has also drawn a protest camp and accusations of greenwashing.