A Nevada rancher suing to block construction of the largest lithium mine in the U.S. says the government’s environmental assessment of the project relies on a baseline set by a consultant for the mining company with a conflict of interest that trivializes potential harm to water resources and wildlife near the Oregon line.
Bartell Ranch LLC wants a U.S. judge to order the Bureau of Land Management to provide documents, contracts and internal communications with all third-party consultants the agency used to reach its conclusion that Lithium Nevada Corp.’s mine won’t affect threatened species or significant scientific, cultural or historic resources.
The ranch filed a lawsuit in February challenging plans for the Thacker Pass mine it says would rob the ranch of its precious water rights.
The case has been consolidated with lawsuits subsequently filed in U.S. District Court in Reno by conservation groups and tribes alleging the mine would destroy critical sage grouse habitat and damage sacred tribal lands that were the site of a massacre in the 1860s.
The bureau hired its own independent consultant, ICF International Inc., to prepare the scientific foundation for a 2,700-page environmental impact statement required under the National Environmental Policy Act.
But it includes 1,300 pages of studies on groundwater pumping that established the models and baseline created by Tyler Cluff, a hydrogeologist in Reno for Canada-based Piteau Associates, according to the motion the ranch’s lawyers filed last week.
They say Cluff currently is serving as an expert for Lithium Nevada in a separate water right protest proceeding in which he’s relying on much of the same data and work he did for the mine’s final environmental impact statement.
“This unusual relationship between a third-party contractor for the NEPA analysis, Piteau, and LNC suggests that Piteau was not working for BLM on the FEIS in a neutral and independent capacity, but rather, was working directly for LNC,” the motion states.
Piteau didn’t respond to emails and phone messages seeking comment.
The ranch’s lawyers say they’re seeking an order to obtain the documents because the bureau and Piteau have refused their requests to collect data at Piteau’s test wells and monitoring locations or turn over field data. They say it’s created a “shroud of secrecy” over the basis for the mine’s approval.
“The entirety of the water resources analysis appears to have been entrusted to Piteau Associates, who appears to have worked mostly, if not exclusively, at the direction of LNC,” the motion said. It said the bureau didn’t verify Piteau’s field work and “simply assumed it was reliable.”
Bartell’s own hydrogeologist strongly disputes the baseline water quantity and quality, and forage conditions.
“Piteau could have inputted faulty data into the models to generate a particular baseline and model outcomes to benefit their employer LNC,” it said. “BLM’s decision to trust the NEPA process to parties like Piteau who may have a financial stake in the approval of the (mine) raises the specter of bad faith.”
The new filing seeks to add the field studies and samples to the court’s administrative record, which currently contains Piteau’s final reports and analysis “but excludes nearly all drafts and communications from Piteau.”
“The environmental baseline is so insufficient that actual baseline conditions are hidden.”
The bureau has until Nov. 5 to respond to the latest filing.
A Justice Department lawyer representing the agency said in an email to the ranch’s lawyer last month the bureau wasn’t provided any field reports and “relied on those contractors’ baseline reports, which are included in the EIS.”
“BLM has the expectation that contractors with appropriately credentialed staff will provide accurate data and conclusions in a professional manner,” Leilani Doktor wrote in the email attached as an exhibit to the ranch’s motion.
Lithium Nevada said in its latest filing last week that “BLM fully analyzed and ensured compliance with water quality standards and appropriately adopted adaptive management.” It said earlier that the bureau conducted a comprehensive review based on its “experience and expertise,” public comment and “extensive data collected ... over years in coordination with state and federal environmental agencies.”
Doktor said the bureau considers the documents sought by the ranch “internal and deliberative” material exempt from the administrative record. Third-party contracts are exempt because they “are not materials considered during the decision-making process.”