PRESS RELEASE: “Blatant Harassment”—Thacker Pass Activists Fined $50K for Providing Bathrooms to Native Elders

Contact Max Wilbert and Will Falk

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

“Blatant Harassment”—Thacker Pass Activists Fined $50K for Providing Bathrooms to Native Elders

OROVADA, NV — The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is threatening organizers of the Protect Thacker Pass land defense camp with $49,890.13 in fines for alleged violations of public land regulations in what activists say is blatant harassment, an attempt to cover up BLM’s violations of the law, and a violation of Native American religious rights.

Will Falk and Max Wilbert, who launched a protest camp on January 15th against the proposed Lithium Nevada Corporation Thacker Pass lithium mine, are facing allegations of trespass related to the construction of temporary latrines and a plywood windbreak.

Falk, who is an attorney representing the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and a native organization called Atsa koodakuh wyh Nuwu (People of Red Mountain) in a court case against the BLM, says the trespass allegations appear to be retaliation for his involvement in the lawsuit.

“BLM Winnemucca’s response to being accused of failing to adequately consult with Native American Tribes is to fine the attorney bringing those accusations nearly $50,000,” Falk says, noting that the trespass notice was first delivered on August 5th, eight days after U.S. District Court, District of Nevada Chief Judge Miranda Du granted intervention to his clients, the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and Atsa Koodakuh wyh Nuwu/People of Red Mountain.

On July 19th, Falk and his co-counsel filed a motion to intervene in a lawsuit against the BLM claiming they violated the National Historic Preservation Act by failing to properly consult with Tribes. 

The fine may also violate the religious rights of Native Americans. All three structures BLM referenced in their August 5th letter were removed in what Falk and Wilbert say was a “demonstration of good faith.” But other latrines remained in place. Falk and Wilbert say that’s because Native American elders, including disabled elders, who are regularly visiting Thacker Pass to participate in ceremonies, made repeated requests for bathroom facilities.

Sunday was the 156-year anniversary of a September 12, 1865 massacre committed by the U.S. Calvary, in which at least 31 Paiutes were killed. More than 100 mostly indigenous people, including an elder in a wheelchair who recently underwent an amputation, gathered at Thacker Pass to pray and mark the event with ceremony.

Falk and Wilbert say that they have explained to BLM officials repeatedly that the latrines are for elders participating in ceremony, and asked for permits. Most recently, on July 24th, BLM Law Enforcement Ranger Blane Parnell informed Wilbert that a permit would be required for temporary outhouses. Wilbert responded both verbally, and in writing, requesting a permit application. Then, again, on August 20, Falk wrote to Kathleen Rehberg, Field Manager for the BLM Humboldt River Field Office, asking for guidance in obtaining a special use permit or to work out some other acceptable arrangement so that people visiting Thacker Pass for ceremony could use the bathroom. All of these requests were completely ignored.

“The Bureau of Land Management is ignoring our permit requests and fining us for maintaining sanitation and protection religious freedom,” Wilbert says. “The same office fast-tracked the permit for Lithium Nevada to destroy thousands of acres of wildlife habitat, and sacred native sites. It’s completely absurd for them to claim they are ‘protecting public lands’ with this action.”

It’s not new for governments and corporations to intimidate activists using legal or administrative mechanisms to prevent civic engagement. One example is what is known as a “SLAPP” suit, or a “Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation,” in which a lawsuit is filed to censor, intimidate, and silence critics. While many of these cases are weak, they burden defendants with the cost and energy of mounting a legal defense in an attempt to force them to abandon their criticism or opposition.

Attorney Terry Lodge, who is working with Falk to represent Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and People of Red Mountain, says these threats from the BLM have all the hallmarks of a SLAPP suit.

“BLM isn’t at all subtle,” Lodge says. “They’re burdening a citizen intervention operating on a shoestring budget with the prospects of having to ward off a diversionary attack. This gambit comes just weeks before the most labor-intensive part of this lawsuit begins, where our clients will have to assemble the evidence of BLM’s assault on the public’s right to know about and oppose the Lithium Americas permit.” 

Falk and Wilbert won’t be intimidated by BLM’s abuse of power, according to Lodge.

“If the agency insists on going forward to prosecute Falk and Wilbert for civil damages, they’ll find themselves having to answer in federal court for suspected retaliation. BLM administrators will have to explain, under oath, how this oddly-timed event over a latrine permit isn’t petty payback for public opposition to a 17,933 acre mine.”  

BLM Nevada has a history of prioritizing mining over the public interest, and multiple instances of retaliation against whistleblowers. 

In October 2019, for example, BLM Nevada Environmental Protection Specialist Dan Patterson filed a whistleblower complaint alleging “open pits of toxic wastewater, roads bulldozed through protected wildlife habitat, and secret hunting cabins are all being allowed on public lands in Nevada” in violation of federal law. 

Patterson was fired soon after in what he describes as retaliation. “[BLM Nevada management is not interested in] a multiple-use agenda, which includes conservation, includes wildlife, includes working with tribes, includes working with people concerned about the environment,” he told KNPR.

Lithium Nevada, the U.S. subsidiary of Lithium Americas, originally planned to begin constructing the Thacker Pass mine in early 2021 through a contractor with the North American Coal Corporation, but delays in permitting, determined opposition, and concerns from locals have already put the project a year behind schedule.

What began as a two-person occupation in January has since expanded, with hundreds attending events at Thacker Pass over the past 9 months. Resistance to the proposed mine has also included multiple lawsuits, water rights challenges, and public protests in Reno, Winnemucca, and Carson City. 

Native governments and organizations continue to speak out. Besides the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and People of Red Mountain, the Burns-Paiute Tribe has also intervened in the lawsuit. And on June 24th, the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), the oldest and largest national organization of American Indian and Alaska Native tribal governments, passed a resolution stating opposition to the Thacker Pass lithium mine and calling on the Department of the Interior to rescind the permits.

The Thacker Pass mine was “fast-tracked” under the Trump administration, which means that a public engagement and permitting process that normally takes 3-4 years was completed in less than 12 months.

Supporters of the campaign can donate here: https://givebutter.com/protectthackerpass

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Timeline

  • January 15, 2021 — Due to regulations cuts and “fast-tracked” permitting under the Trump Administration, the Bureau of Land Management releases a Record of Decision approving the Thacker Pass mine less than a year after beginning the Environmental Impact Statement process required under the National Environmental Policy Act. On the same day, the Protect Thacker Pass camp is established.
  • February 11, 2021 — Local rancher Edward Bartell files a lawsuit (Case No. 3:21-cv-00080-MMD-CLB) in U.S. District Court alleging the proposed mine violates the Endangered Species Act by harming Lahontan Cutthroat Trout, and would cause irreparable harm to springs, wet meadows, and water tables.
  • February 26, 2021 — Four environmental organizations (Basin and Range Watch, Great Basin Resource Watch, Wildlands Defense, and Western Watersheds Project) file another lawsuit (Case No. 3:21-cv-00103-MMD-CLB) in U.S. District Court, alleging that BLM violated the National Environmental Policy Act, Federal Land Policy Management Act, and other laws in permitting the Thacker Pass mine.
  • May 20, 2021 — Atsa koodakuh wyh Nuwu releases public statement of opposition to the Thacker Pass mine & starts a petition which has gathered nearly 3,000 signatures.
  • May 27, 2021 — The four environmental groups who filed suit on Feb. 26th ask Federal Judges for a Preliminary Injunction to block Lithium Nevada’s proposed archeological digging under their “Historic Properties Treatment Plan.”
  • June 12, 2021 — A rally opposing the Thacker Pass mine is held in Reno, Nevada, with several hundred people attending. Speakers include members of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, Fort McDermitt Paiute-Shoshone tribe, Duck Valley 
  • June 24, 2021 — The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), the oldest and largest national organization of American Indian and Alaska Native tribal governments, called on the Department of the Interior to rescind the permits for the Thacker Pass project.
  • July 7, 2021 — A rally is held at the Carson City office of Far Western Anthropological Research Group, Inc., the for-profit archeological company hired to excavate the cultural sites at Thacker Pass. Atsa koodakuh wyh Nuwu (People of Red Mountain) deliver a signed letter stating that if Far Western digs up sacred and cultural sites at Thacker Pass, they will be committing actions that are unethical and wrong.
  • July 19, 2021 — The Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and Atsa koodakuh wyh Nuwu (People of Red Mountain) file a motion to intervene in Federal District Court alleging that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) violated the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) in permitting the planned lithium mine.
  • July 27, 2021 — Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and Atsa koodakuh wyh Nuwu (People of Red Mountain), represented by attorneys Julie Cavanaugh-Bill, Will Falk, and Terry Lodge, file a second motion asking Federal Judges for a Preliminary Injunction to block Lithium Nevada’s proposed Historic Properties Treatment Plan.
  • August 5, 2021 — Bureau of Land Management delivers notice alleging that Falk and Wilbert are liable for trespass.
  • September 3, 2021 — Judge Miranda Du rejects the injunction request, writing that while she “finds the Tribes’ arguments regarding the spiritual distress that the [looting of native artifacts and sacred sites] will cause persuasive,” she “must nonetheless reluctantly” allow the archeological dig as “the Court must operate within the framework of the applicable laws and regulations.”
  • September 15, 2021 — Bureau of Land Management delivers notice that Falk and Wilbert (neither of whom were on-site) are guilty of trespass.

Tresspass

Breaking News: The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is fining Max and Will $49,890.13

After we sued the Bureau of Land Management for failing to consult with Native tribes before permitting the destruction of sacred Peehee mu’huh (Thacker Pass), BLM has found Max Wilbert and I in trespass for bathrooms that were constructed in Peehee mu’huh so that Native elders and people with disabilities could use the bathroom while praying and engaging in ceremony.

BLM is fining Max Wilbert and I $49,890.13. We need to ask whether our government takes better care of corporations or human beings and the natural world. Of course, when Lithium Nevada Corporation is permitted to destroy nearly 6000 acres in Peehee mu’huh, including digging an 1100 acre open pit, 400 feet deep, all while making millions of dollars, but Native people and their supporters can’t build an outhouse in the same exact location without being fined nearly $50,000, we must conclude that our government takes better care of corporations.

Please donate if you can: Max and Will are going to need a lot of legal help to fight this fine. Thank you!!

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Art by Travis London, Deep Green Arts.

The Stars at Thacker Pass

Looking for a god?
the stars in Peehee mu’huh ask
why not us?

We’re always there
whether you see us or not

We’re infinite
the sleepless can tell you

We do not rule by force
but through the charisma
in freely offered splendor

Instead of ten,
we have one simple commandment:
don’t drown us out
with smog and smoke
with false gods and pretenders
with city lights and ceilings

Keep the earth and sky clean,
and the darker things get,
the worse things are,
the harder we will try
to tip your face
gently to the sky
and shower you softly
with shimmering kisses
and silver blessings
no matter your supposed sins

photo by Max Wilbert

Stars

Do good neighbors dig up massacre sites? Questioning the Thacker Pass narrative

On Tuesday, Lithium Americas CEO Alexi Zawadzki published an opinion column in this newspaper stating that “For Lithium Americas and its subsidiary Lithium Nevada, developing the Thacker Pass lithium mine isn’t worth doing if we don’t do it right. This means committing to a process that is transparent, collaborative — and most of all, respectful to our neighbors.”

If Zawadski is telling the truth, he should back up his words with action and cancel the Thacker Pass mine project right away.

The neighbors he refers to — local farmers and ranchers in Orovada and Kings River, as well as Native Americans from the nearby Fort McDermitt Reservation — have almost universally expressed outrage about the Thacker Pass mine.

Lithium Americas faces three lawsuits from a rancher, environmental groups and Tribes. They face protests to their water rights transfers. Their Argentina mine has faced complaints of human rights violations, as reported in The Washington Post. And the protest camp that I helped found attracts hundreds to the site in a groundswell of public opposition.

Yet now, they are poised to bulldoze through sagebrush habitat over new evidence showing a massacre of Paiutes took place in Thacker Pass in 1865. Apparently, despite “extensive cultural inventories,” they missed this. What else have they missed?

Zawadzki claims his company is doing “extensive work to respect and safeguard” the connection of tribes to the region. Charitably, he is confused by what these words mean. Less charitably, he is lying. Desecrating sacred sites, looting artifacts and ignoring a history of massacres to punch through a rushed project is the polar opposite of respect.

Does this sound collaborative? Does it sound like being a good neighbor?

Behind the public relations rhetoric is the truth. This mine will release chemicals, raise radioactive dust and pollute with fumes from up to 200 semi truck trips per day. The environmental impacts include water drawdowns, bulldozing of habitat, severing of migration corridors and possible harm to endangered species. And this project hurts the public, too: It will virtually privatize 28 square miles of public lands for at least 40 years and possibly much more.

All that traffic will hurt the community through more than air pollution too. Locals, including Humboldt County Commissioner Ron Cherri, have stated that “it’s not a matter of if, but a matter of when” someone dies due to the increase in truck traffic. And the indigenous community in particular is concerned about missing and murdered Indigenous women and the rise in drug abuse and crime that tends to follow large industrial projects — part of what Interior Secretary Deb Haaland has called an epidemic of violence against Indigenous peoples.

And when the mine is inevitably used up, what will be left behind? A wasteland for future generations? A cancer cluster? A moonscape with a fraction of its former biodiversity? Perhaps if Zawadzki was a local, and his children and grandchildren would be living in this area, he would make different choices.

For now, the courts have sided with Lithium Americas. But that decision may not last. Further, in a pluralistic society, it is a mistake to rely on governments or courts to always do what is right. In his letter from a Birmingham jail, Martin Luther King, Jr. — who broke the law repeatedly — wrote that “We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’ and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was ‘illegal.’”

Zawadzki is not telling the truth. He is doing what corporate crooks are paid to do: lying in order to ram this mine through, despite the harm it will cause, and despite determined, principled community opposition.

Reno Gazette Journal

Photo: a resident of Thacker Pass, by Max Wilbert.

International Lithium Group Stands in Solidarity with Peehee mu’huh / Thacker Pass Communities

For Immediate Release
September 8, 2021

Contacts:
John Hadder, Great Basin Resource Watch
Mirko Nikolić, YLNM-Lithium Group / Postdoc Linköping University
Hannibal Rhoades, YLNM-Lithium Group / The Gaia Foundation

Today, an international working group of individuals from around the world who are directly facing the effects of lithium extraction or are a part of organizations working alongside these frontline communities, have released a statement in support of the directly affected communities of the proposed Thacker Pass lithium mine. They are demanding that all ground-breaking at the Thacker Pass mine site be halted and that the affected communities be treated with full right to withhold consent for the mine.

The international YLNM lithium group is composed of people from places in Chile, Serbia, Portugal, Nevada, California, Australia, Spain, and the UK who are facing the negative repercussions of existing lithium mining or who are fighting proposed lithium mines threatening to devastate their communities, cultural resources, and ecosystems. It is from this place of first hand experience of the harms associated with lithium mining that they internationally demand for ground-breaking operations to be halted at Thacker Pass and for the affected communities to be treated with complete right to withhold consent for the mine.

Ramón M. Balcázar is one of the members of the YLNM network, who works at the Plurinational Observatory of Salares Andinos in protecting Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia’s salt flats from lithium extraction: “​​As we can see in Nevada, the expansion of lithium mining reproduces colonialism not only in Latin America but also in stolen lands in so-called developed countries. If this is the cost of having electric cars for the most polluting countries of the world, maybe we need to find other ways for clean and just mobility, and those ways are probably beyond green capitalism.”

Prior to and after the Record of Decision on the Thacker Pass mine by the Bureau of Land Management in January 2021, large numbers of individuals from the various affected communities–such as the People of Red Mountain, the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe, The Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, the Burns Paiute Tribe, and the agricultural communities within Orovada and Kings River Valley–have been loudly voicing opposition. Members from these multiple frontline communities that will be directly and significantly harmed by the Thacker Pass Lithium mine have been fighting to prevent its construction through various peaceful avenues.

One of these forces of community resistance is the Atsa koodakuh wyh Nuwu, or the People of Red Mountain, which is a group of Fort McDermitt tribal descendants who formed specifically to oppose the Thacker Pass mine and other lithium projects threatening their homelands. As Deland Hinkey from the group states, “Peehee Mu’huh is sacred land and we must protect sacred land. It is not too late for change. We all need to realize that we only have one Earth and she must be protected. Stop corporations like Lithium Nevada, who want to destroy Mother Earth for profit…Let’s Protect Peehee Mu’huh.”

Folks from the agricultural communities next to the mine have also been clear in voicing the harms the mine will cause them. As one of these community members, Jean Williams, in Orovada, NV states, “this mine at Thacker Pass is not being permitted for the well being of our farming community. The process they wish to use is questionable. The amount of sulfur to be brought in for processing has the potential for permanent harm to crops and cattle production. Our water may disappear with no guarantee from the mine to make it right.”

Despite their and other community members’ efforts, and the clear community un-consent for the mine, it was permitted by the Bureau of Land Management in a fast-tracked manner that neglected proper Tribal consultation and public process. The mine is currently on the brink of construction, with many members from affected communities actively still resisting it, as well as active litigation in opposition to the mine’s permitting from a local rancher, conservation groups, two federally recognized Tribes, and the Atsa koodakuh wyh Nuwu. It is still undetermined precisely when the mining company, Lithium Nevada, will be breaking ground, but they have stated intent to do so in the near future.

The international working group’s statement of solidarity and demand for the rights of the communities affected by the Thacker Pass mine was echoed by over a dozen other international organizations and individuals who also signed on to the demands in the statement. The sentiment of solidarity with those on Thacker Pass’s frontlines is global beyond the YLNM network.

In a time where proponents of the mine largely center their arguments around domestic production of lithium and preventing “outsourcing” of the harms of mining it onto other nations, the statement coming directly from those affected by lithium mining in these other nations speaks volumes in pushing back this narrative. It states loud and clear that communities, no matter where they are located, should hold complete right to withhold consent for mines that directly affect them, their cultural resources, sacred sites, water, land, and air. The YLNM lithium network and the greater global voices’ sweeping support and solidarity for those harmed by the Thacker Pass mine sends the message that a win for the community members fighting the Thacker Pass mine is a win for communities directly affected by lithium mining everywhere.

“Our planet is home to an astonishing multitude of plant, animal, human communities and living environments. Toxic and exploitative extractivist system keeps trying to separate us from our communities and Nature, and plunges us deeper into climate and socio-ecological chaos that it caused in the first place. A true and just transformation will be led by communities and imbued by our knowledge to meet the specific needs and realities of the places we inhabit and care for. Through this work in our respective places, we will be able to join paths towards regenerating the Earth community of justice and solidarity,” Mirko Nikolić from the YLNM-Lithium Group.