Protecting Peehee Muh’huh, or Thacker Pass, Means Protecting the Eastern Sierra, too

by Caelen McQuilkin

Published in the Opinion section of The Mammoth Times on August 19, 2021

Drive slightly east and then five hours north out of Lee Vining, and you’ll find yourself in Thacker Pass, a wide-open landscape of sagebrush and sloping hills, achingly beautiful in that special high desert way. Drive slightly east and then five hours north out of Lee Vining, follow the 80 most of the way, turn left once you reach the small town of Orovada, Nevada, and you might fall in love with a place you had never previously heard of.

That’s what happened to me this summer when I saw the first social media posts and advocacy surrounding Peehee mu’huh, or Thacker Pass, and the movement to protect it from the proposed development of a 5,000 acre open-pit lithium mine atop what one of the advocacy groups fighting to protect the area, Atsa koodakuh wyh Nuwu, or People of Red Mountain, knows as “a spiritually powerful place blessed by the presence of our ancestors, other spirits, and golden eagles – who we consider to be directly connected to the Creator,” according to their statement of opposition. This is due to the history of the place: a long time ago, Indigenous people in the area–the ancestors of many of the advocates fighting to protect the place today–were massacred at Thacker Pass. “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 statement reads. “We would never desecrate these places and we ask that our sacred sites be afforded the same respect.”

Though the movement to protect Thacker Pass is centered around land over 300 miles away from the Eastern Sierra, it provides a model for what environmentalism in the 21st century must look like if we are to address the root causes of environmental destruction. This type of environmentalism centers around anti-racist and anti-capitalist struggles, therefore addressing several root causes of environmental destruction in the modern day: the force of colonization, and the disproportionate power held by large corporations and by the rich. The movement begs us to interrogate ourselves with larger moral questions that Daranda Hinkey, a member of the Fort McDermitt Paiute Shoshone tribe and founder of People of Red Mountain, brought up: “What do we truly care about most?” she asked, referencing the outsized attention that purchasable items supposed to save us from the climate crisis receive, and the “greenwashing” that makes them palatable. “Do we care about the land? Do we care about the animals? Do we care about the water? Do we care about the air?”

Protecting Thacker Pass will help usher in a new era of environmentalism aimed towards racial and class justice, and therefore could in turn protect the Eastern Sierra from the similar environmental threats and racial inequities our region faces.

Historically, our region and the Thacker Pass region were linked through the movement of people. In the modern day, many Indigenous people still act on and appreciate this connection, and movements like Thacker Pass cast light upon its continued relevance. “A long time ago, we used to roam this way all the way down to Pyramid Lake, out to Lee Vining and California. There used to be roads here, a long time ago,” said Ron Guerrero, a member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute tribe and supporter of the movement to protect Thacker Pass. “We weren’t separated by reservations. You know they put us on reservations, but we used to migrate with the animals. All through these lines, all the way to California, this is where we travelled through. At one time, we were all one. Bishop Paiutes, Pyramid Lake Paiutes, Fort McDermitt Paiutes, we were all one.”

The human history of this landscape shows that people have recognized the inherent connections between the land that makes up the high desert of the American West. Many still do recognize this inherent connection, and are acting on it. Myron Dewey, a filmmaker, journalist, and supporter of the movement, explained: “I’m a descendant of Yosemite. I’m currently enrolled in the Walker River Paiute tribe on my dad’s side, and I’m also Tomoke-Shoshone on my dad’s side, and from my mom’s side, I’m from the Bishop Paiute tribe,” he said. “Those Sierra mountains are our homelands. What I would like people to know, is to do the land acknowledgement on the land that you’re on, and know that the Indigenous people, even though they don’t all live in their traditional homelands, they’re still trying to protect them.”

Indeed, environmental threats like that at Thacker Pass are already present in our region. As far as lithium mining goes, a project to begin exploratory drilling for lithium in Panamint Valley was approved in 2019, according to Friends of the Inyo, and while the corporation has most recently decided to prioritize other mining projects, they may be back in the future. In addition, a recent gold mining proposal at Conglomerate Mesa, a large section of high desert landscape located at the doorstep of Death Valley National Park, and on the homelands of the Timbisha-Shoshone and Paiute-Shoshone tribal nations, poses a threat to sacred Indigenous land and critical wildlife habitat. According to Brian Hatchell, Desert Policy Associate at Friends of the Inyo, the Canadian company K2 Gold and their subsidiary Mojave Precious Metals are currently planning to begin the construction of miles of new roads and over a hundred exploratory drill holes at Conglomerate Mesa. This construction will come in anticipation of the actual mine, which will include cyanide heap-leach mine. “Numerous leaders in local tribes have opposed the gold exploration and mining by K2 Gold,” said Hatchell. “Conglomerate Mesa is a kingdom of solitude abundant in flora and fauna wonders that captures the pure essence of desert backcountry exploration. This area is simply too special for gold exploration and the open-pit cyanide heap leach gold mine that would follow.”

At Thacker Pass, the opposition to lithium mining formed in the beginning of 2021, after the corporation Lithium Nevada was able to quickly push through approval for its project, taking advantage of the recent weakening of environmental review process laws under the Trump administration. At its start, the resistance consisted of two people camped at Thacker Pass, but today, it has grown in size and impact.

Two advocacy groups–Protect Thacker Pass and Atsa koodakuh wyh Nuwu, People of Red Mountain–are working in solidarity to resist the mine by spreading awareness and education, taking legal action, building social pressure, and planning to peacefully blockade mine construction. The advocacy groups’ arguments are rooted in their belief that Thacker Pass is valuable and irreplaceable, and the impact of mining it will cause serious and irreversible damage, both to the area and through the precedent it will set for extractive practices in the West as a whole.

One such irreplaceable value of Thacker Pass is the fact that destruction of the landscape, and the wildlife it is home to (including the greater sage grouse, Lahontan cutthroat trout, pronghorn antelope, and golden eagle) will mean destruction of Indigenous culture and traditional knowledge. Hinkey explained what protecting Thacker Pass means to her: “It means I am protecting all the knowledge that all my grandmas and my grandpas, what they carry and what they tell me,” she said. “Everything that I know was not things that I just came up with. It was things that I learned. And so to me, it’s protecting that.”

People of Red Mountain’s statement in opposition to the lithium mine details why preserving cultural knowledge is so important.

“Thacker Pass is essential to the survival of our traditions. Our traditions are tied to the land,” it reads. “When our land is destroyed, our traditions are destroyed.” According to the statement, these traditions specific to Thacker Pass include picking choke cherries from the orchards there, gathering yapa, or wild potatoes, hunting groundhogs and mule deer, and gathering traditional medicines such as ibi, a chalky rock used for ulcers and internal and external bleeding, and toza root, which is considered one of the world’s best anti-viral medicines. Hinkey explained: “In the spring, there are a bunch of First Foods, and wildflowers, and the sagebrush, and a bunch of wildlife… As Native people, we are supposed to be caretakers of the land,” she said. “We’re supposed to be protectors for the people that are vulnerable. And when I say people, I mean the animal people, I mean the plant people. We still see them as that, and so we’re supposed to speak up for the ones that are vulnerable or can’t speak up for themselves.”

These arguments are so weighty they seem hard to effectively ignore, but one way advocates for the mine are promoting their development is through “greenwashing,” or presenting the illusion that they are not only environmentally responsible, but actually helping the environmental cause. Because lithium is necessary for the production of the batteries that run EV cars–technology often regarded as one of the solutions to the climate crisis–some believe that developing lithium mines such as this one will be necessary to slow climate change. “The company wants to blow up a mountain and call it green,” said Max Wilbert, one of the founders of Protect Thacker Pass. “Call it good for the planet to blow up a mountain and poison water and leave behind a wasteland and destroy all this wildlife habitat. That’s not unique here, that’s all over the world, that this sort of thing is happening.”

Many leaders at Thacker Pass mentioned greenwashing and its ties to their philosophy about environmentalism. If we can’t create an environmental movement that is geared towards addressing root causes, rather than symptoms, some said, then companies that can effectively greenwash will simply continue profiting from the same crisis that has already begun to harm the most vulnerable. Thinking about the world in terms of multiple generations to come may help rewire one’s thinking to reject greenwashing and false solutions like this one. Many advocates at Thacker Pass expressed their views through this lens.

“This is our future. It’s not only mine, it’s yours too… I’m old. It’s not for me, it’s for younger generations. It’s for you guys. That’s what my part is–I’m fighting the fight for all of us,” said Ron Guerrero, a member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, who came to Thacker Pass for the first time in the spring and has since been back over ten times. Hinkey had similar thoughts. “It’s not just us in this present day having a new lithium car, having solar panels or wind turbines. It’s not us now. I think that we’re starting to realize with climate change, we have to really think to the future,” she said. “With the greenwashing, it’s like we’re destroying the land–adding to the mining, adding to the carbon emissions.”

If we want to preserve our planet for future generations, we need to listen to the voices at Thacker Pass–voices that are calling for a reevaluation of humanity’s entire relationship with the environment through a reckoning with the implications of colonization. A rekindling and centering of the Indigenous knowledge about living with and caring for the land, acting with far future generations and therefore permanent solutions in mind, thinking radically about what it will take to truly address the climate crisis and emerge better for it.

Protecting Thacker Pass means protecting the Eastern Sierra–through the inherent links of our regions, and through the symbolism of the movement that will benefit all places worth protecting. As Dewey put it: “Come and support Peehee mm’huh, Thacker Pass, through whatever donations or physical support you can give. Or just come and witness and experience, and see how the Indigenous people are still trying to protect what little is left of traditional harvesting areas, sacred sites, clean water,” he said. “We have an obligation and an opportunity to make a wrong right, and you can be part of that healing.”

If you are interested in updates about the movement, donating, joining the protest camp, or otherwise becoming involved, visit https://protectthackerpass.org. Read the entirety of People of Red Mountain’s statement at https://protectthackerpass.org/people-of-red-mountain/. Find more information about the movement to protect Conglomerate Mesa at http://protectconglomeratemesa.com/.

Peehee Mu’huh speaks

By Daranda Hinkey

For This Is Reno, August 31, 2021

I look over Peehee Mu’huh, a vast land of sagebrush that has been taken care of by the Paiute and Shoshone since time immemorial. The heat is settling in at Peehee Mu’huh Camp, while we continue to build an opposition to protect this land.

Peehee Mu’huh, also known as Thacker Pass, is a culturally significant place for my people, yet it is being threatened by Lithium Nevada, a.k.a. Lithium Americas, because they want to extract the lithium from the ground and sell it. The country believes they need to transition to “green energy,” to save the planet and cut down carbon emissions. They do not realize that in return for electric car batteries, aggressive lithium mining will harm the planet more in the process.

Lithium is a trick. In reality, pushing for lithium is another way for a handful of the rich to sustain their high-maintenance lifestyles.

This lithium mine will be the first of its kind. It will burn sulfuric acid 24 hours a day to leach the lithium from the clay. It will then move through more processing plants that require 4.6 million gallons of water per day. With sulfuric acid burning every day, even the best air filters in the world cannot control the dangerous particles. The mine will affect at least a 150-mile radius.

This mine will strip the area of 1.7 billion gallons of water per year. What plants, medicines, animals, land, and water will be left for the Indigenous peoples of the area when their homelands are stripped due to a catastrophic drought heightened by the mine?

Peehee Mu’huh is a massacre site of a band of our people, making it a sacred burial ground. This place also holds medicines, first foods, stories, teachings, and animal habitats.

Lithium Nevada plans to turn this sacred place into a hazardous dust bowl, impacting multiple generations to come. These burial grounds, animal habitat and medicines should not be dug up for the sake of electric cars and batteries. The Paiute and Shoshone cannot eat lithium; they cannot drink or hunt or weave lithium. Lithium Nevada comes to our Tribe to offer temporary items and monetary objects, but they cannot replace the spirits that have been laid to rest at Peehee Mu’huh, and they have not much to offer for our culture and our values.

Peehee Mu’huh does not want to be sold. She does not want to be stripped from its sagebrush and contaminated with chemicals. She does not want her animals to flee. She does not want the ancestors’ bones to be unearthed.

My people before me and the people far after me have spoken; they say to keep the lithium in the ground. They wish for our people to not forget our Indigenous ways in a world that continues to attempt to dismantle our identities. My ancestors wish for our modern warriors to protect our Sacred.

Daranda Hinkey is a Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone tribal member. She is a part of the People of Red Mountain who oppose the Thacker Pass Lithium Mine in order to keep their cultural resources and Sacred sites protected.

Published in This is Reno, August 31, 2021. Photo by Bob Conrad for This is Reno

As hopeful as honesty is

As I come down from the stress and anxiety of preparing for Friday’s oral arguments in the Thacker Pass case, I’ve been thinking about what I’ve learned since Max Wilbert and I set up our little two-person tent back on January 15 to protest the Bureau of Land Management’s final record of decision to permit an enormous open pit lithium mine that would destroy Thacker Pass. It’s been difficult to articulate what I’ve learned. The difficulty comes from the fact that I want to have learned something encouraging or hopeful, something that leaves my readers feeling good.

But, what I’ve learned is not encouraging or hopeful. At least, it’s only as encouraging or hopeful as honesty is.

Honestly, this campaign has left me feeling empty and exhausted. Part of it comes from my fear that, after all the work so many have done to protect Thacker Pass, the judge is still going to allow Lithium Nevada to rip the land up on their way to stealing artifacts and sacred objects created by my Native clients’ ancestors. Another part of it is my knowledge that this fight is really just beginning.

The biggest part of it, though, is that I thought through this work there might be some moment of fulfillment, some moment of victory or pride I would experience in “fighting the good fight” or in being counted among those “who are at least doing something.”

The truth is, I’ve never felt that moment. The natural world is still being destroyed at an intensifying pace, most people don’t care, and most people probably will never care.

I’m not going to give up. You shouldn’t either. Golden eagles need us. Sage grouse need us. Yearling pronghorn antelope need us. The generations who may or may not exist depending on our success need us. That should be enough.

There’s no glory or fulfillment or spiritual salve in fighting to protect the natural world. You might be happier and healthier if you never join the fight. But, if we don’t do it, who will?

Video and notes from Friday’s preliminary injunction hearing

Live blogging notes from the preliminary injunction hearing, Friday August 27, 2021

The wind is strong from the east this morning at #ThackerPass. Coyotes howling. Hummingbirds in the air. A jackrabbit hopped through camp in the pre-dawn. The land is alive and awake.

9:00am: Will Falk is beginning arguments now on behalf of Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and Atsa Koodakuh wyh Nuwu, People of Red Mountain.

Will Falk is describing September 12, 1865 massacre of roughly 31 Paiute/Shoshone people in the Thacker Pass area. It was committed by the 1st Nevada Calvary.

Will is arguing it is likely that the native people fled the soldiers and may have moved west into Thacker Pass.

There are over 1000 cultural resource sites and 50+ sites eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places WITHIN the Thacker Pass mine project area. Destroying these would cause irreparable harm to sacred sites and to People of Red Mountain/Reno-Spark Indian Colony.

People of Red Mountain and Reno-Sparks Indian Colony have argued that disturbing these sites is like digging up Arlington National Cemetery or Pearl Harbor – a national disgrace.

Will is arguing that the tribes believe removing artifacts is like looting – history removed from context and from the land on which is was created.

Lawyer for Burns Paiute Tribe is taking the stand.

Burns Paiute lawyer states that consultation for the archeological dig permit is “very early in the process.” Says “consultation is not normally a quick process.”

He states that BLM has “an affirmative duty” to consult with tribes. Their responsibility is to DO IT RIGHT, not the tribes’ responsibility to get involved. The law is quite clear.

“Tribes are often reluctant to reveal info about sacred sites” – lifted directly from BLM handbook.

Discussing previous case showing links between Burns Paiute Tribe has deep links to the Peehee Mu’huh / Thacker Pass region.

Strong arguments that mitigation would not alleviate the harm to Burns Paiute Tribe.

“It is known as a spiritually powerful place” – Diane Teeman, Burns Paiute Tribe

Burns Paiute Lawyer argues that National Historic Preservation Act is NOT just about bones and artifacts. It’s about landscapes. Protecting these important and historical sites.

Says this digging amounts to irreparable harm that warrants a preliminary injunction.

Says that BLM has violated that National Historic Preservation Act and it’s own policies.

BLM lawyer taking the stand now.

Arguing that BLM’s consultation was reasonable and in good faith, and arguing that People of Red Mountain should not be allowed to consult as they are not federally recognized.

BLM lawyer says that goal of their resource management plan is to protect more important landscapes. Judge challenges, repeats that tribes often do not reveal sacred sites.

BLM lawyer states they asked for stories… and basically that’s enough. The tribes should have told them everything. 🙄

BLM basically arguing “you had your chance, should have spoken up.” Sorry BLM. The public comment period NEVER ENDS in a democracy.

BLM arguing the tribes are outside the area of effect.

BLM says “no evidence of any massacre has come up yet.” Reno-Sparks has no particular connection to Thacker Pass area. Wow BLM. You don’t know what you’re talking about do you!

Judge challenges, says its unreasonable that BLM didn’t consult with the tribes when they HAVE done so on other projects nearby. BLM argues that was because human remains were found. They undercut their own case, arguing they must consult with lineal descendants.

BLM argues again that People of Red Mountain should have NO STANDING. As opposed to their own agency, working on unceded native land claimed through the Doctrine of Discovery? Who has no standing here BLM?

Judge asks BLM to respond to Falk argument about irreparable harm to burial sites. BLM say they do not dispute there will be harm, falls back on argument amounting to “we’ve tried our best!”

BLM says you can mitigate harm to artifacts and bones by not putting them in plastic bags, but instead not putting them in plastic bags.

BLM backtracks, says they *do* argue there will be no irreparable harm. Judge challenges them, reminds BLM they stated “we do not question cultural significance.”

“I spoke too broadly” says BLM lawyer.

BLM argues there is no evidence of grave sites. BLM is not prepared to tell tribes what they believe. Judge says their argument boils down to: “There may be important cultural sites there, but our system will mitigate any harm that could occur.”

“It’s unlikely to cause irreparable harm,” says BLM. Unlikely huh?

Judge asks: is it legal for us to defer decision on the injunction until after the permit process for the ARPA (archeological permit) has been resolved? BLM says yes, states the permit process is not likely to result in mitigation, because the tribes are saying “don’t do it.”

Lithium Nevada lawyer taking the stand. She argues the motion should be denied, “there is no harm at all.”

$LAC lawyer argues that Reno-Sparks should not be allowed to intervene because they should have told the BLM years ago “this is our territory.” She is a colonizer through and through. No recognition of the history and process of the destruction of native people, and how that plays out.

Lithium Nevada lawyer argues that one plan from years ago should have included Thacker Pass. Linear thinking ignores that native history is being reconstructed and sovereignty is rebuilt over time. Consultation is not consent.

Her argument rests on a bureaucratic detail: tribes should have used BLM process. This amounts to: “You had your chance.” We are witnessing a soulless person arguing for modern #greencolonialism.

LNC lawyer: “Everyone is on notice on the importance of Arlington National Cemetery”—not true for Thacker Pass. Judge challenges that BLM did not consult, so how could they know? Good point.

She suggests that people walking in lines across the project site should have been able to see evidence of a massacre. Says that it’s harmful to Lithium Nevada to allow tribes to halt this mine. “We’ve already spent millions of dollars.”

Lithium lawyer says that “Indian village remnants” and “violent incident” was miles from project area. Judge challenges, pointing out that Falk argues the entire area is a cemetery. Lithium lawyer responds that “the law doesn’t protect that.”

She argues “extraordinary care” for cultural mitigation. AKA: “We will very carefully desecrate and destroy your sacred sites!”

She argues that standing on the sidelines until late in the permitting process is “not in the public interest.” Which public?

She makes the national security argument. What about national security for the Paiute and Shoshone Nations? Tribes make arguments when they become aware of the issues. Project was rushed in 1 year during COVID.

Will Falk back on the stand. He argues that permitting took place in <1 year, during COVID. Rushed environmental permitting. Tribes were locked down. Federal Government has fiduciary duty to Indian tribes. And they didn’t notify tribes of biggest lithium mine in the world?

“My clients’ ancestors were massacred by the federal government.” So why be surprised they have trouble trusting BLM now? Esp. when area has seen looting in the past. Strong arguments by Falk.

“Trying to sneak projects through… fast tracking during pandemic… then when they get info about sacred sites… that is the essence of bad faith.” – Falk

Reno-Sparks has clearly told BLM they will need to consulted on projects outside their immediate area. To permit this project in 11 months and complete real consultation is ridiculous.

Falk: BLM had in their OWN RECORDS a document describing a massacre in the project area. They KNEW that Burns and Reno-Sparks were related to here. And they KNEW a history of looting in the area. And they KNEW that tribes often do not tell about sacred sites.

Falk argues that past projects in the area are not consultation, because consultation was inadequate for those projects too. Wind is strong here. The land is with Falk.

Past projects were small, consultation was inadequate. Past district-wide plans were for completely different types of projects. Tribes DID says they opposed any adverse impacts to cultural and sacred sites. Falk says fast tracking was done to deceive and bypass public opposition.

Falk: Nevada is looking to massively expand lithium mines. This one will set the tone. MUST be done right. The Historic Properties Treatment Plan (HPTP) was done without tribal consultation. Jargon hides the reality that HPTP really means looting, removing artifacts from places where tribes can now visit and learn their history with children, elders, families.

Burns Paiute Lawyer: BLM lawyer cited prior case incorrectly. Tribes did nothing wrong. Again, BLM violated their own rules. Just because a tribe said something in 2003 doesn’t mean much. Priorities and interests change.

Burns Paiute Lawyer: the tribe didn’t have to do consultation earlier. You do it when the issue arises. It’s arising now. By not having consultation, Burns tribe lost the chance to ask “should this happen at all?” Is Thacker eligible for listing on the National Register?

Burns Paiute Lawyer: no dispute this is an important place. Even archeological digging harms the religious and cultural significance, and potential for listing and protecting this place. This is irreparable harm and justifies a preliminary injunction.

Judge Miranda Du: “I will decide on this matter within a week.
BLM lawyer: We may file a motion early next week to extend the deadline out further relating to new claims being brought in the lawsuits.

That’s the end of the hearing.

The video below is the press conference held in the afternoon of August 27, 2021 following the hearing.

[embedded content]

Oct 18, 1868 Diary Entry from Thacker Pass

While researching the history of Thacker Pass / Peehee mu’huh for legal work, Will Falk found this diary entry, titled Field Notes of the Subdivision Lines in Township 44, from Oct 18, 1868:

General Description

About one half only of this Township is fit for cultivation and that is confined mostly to the grassland, which is all fine meadow and has a rich soil, about 230 tons of hay has been cut in Sec 25 this year, along both sides of the river.

Trout creek is the only mountain stream of any importance that flows through this Township. At this season of the year but little water.
The creek bed has an average width of one chain, and banks of an average height of 4ft.

It drains a considerable extent of mountain country and during the spring floods carves a very large body of water flowing through Trout Creek Valley. It has a heavy fall and rushes through the canyon in Sec. 8.17, with tremendous force. The walls of this canyon rise from 200 ft to 250 ft in perpendicular height. There are water marks here some 8ft or 10ft above it’s present level.

The sage land between the mountains and meadow is a bed of gravel worked through this canyon.

Sec. 33 is very wet meadow. In the N.W. 44 is a large clump of buffalo bush and the remains of an Indian camp. In the (dept.code), 1/4 there is an endless number of springs containing excellent water, the best indeed to be found in this section of the country.

Along the line between sec. 22, 23, and between the creek and the meadow I found the remains of an extensive Indian camp. It was at these camps that Captain _ Payne, with 100 E, 1st Nevada Cavalry, attacked and whipped a body of Indians on Sept 12th 1865. There are many Indian skulls and other remains to be found scattered over this junction of the township. I found same also opposite here on the East side of the river.

You can view a scan of the original document here

Press Conference on Thacker Pass Lawsuits

On Friday, August 27th at 2pm Pacific, attorneys for Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and Atsa Koodakuh wyh Nuwu (People of Red Mountain) will hold a virtual press conference updating supporters and media members on the lawsuits against the Bureau of Land Management and Lithium Nevada Corporation.

Earlier that morning, there will be a hearing in Federal District Court. Judge Miranda Du will hear arguments from Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and Atsa Koodakuh wyh Nuwu (People of Red Mountain) on their motion for a preliminary injunction. If Judge Du grants the injunction, she is recognizing that these plaintiffs have a good chance of succeeding in their lawsuit which argues that the Bureau of Land Management violated federal law when they permitted the Thacker Pass lithium mine by not properly consulting with tribes. The full lawsuit will be heard later in 2021 or early 2022.

Friday’s hearing will be open to the public via video conference, but not in-person. We encourage anyone who is interested to attend. **But legal hearings can be hard to understand if you are not a lawyer, which is why we are planning to hold this virtual press conference that afternoon to explain what is happening in the case.**

Questions will be accepted and members of the press are invited to join.

The press conference will be live streaming on the Protect Thacker Pass Facebook page.

Legal update and hearing this week

Media coverage regarding the July 21st Thacker Pass mine-related injunction hearing seems to misunderstand the current status and implications of the ongoing legal battles over Thacker Pass, or “Peehee Mu’huh.”

Contrary to these media misrepresentations, Thacker Pass’ fate has not yet been decided – far from it. Lithium Nevada still has formidable legal obstacles to overcome – including the recent addition of Paiute-Shoshone plaintiffs bearing new, stronger arguments against the excavation of cultural sites at Thacker Pass.

It’s true that on July 23rd, Nevada Federal District Court Judge Miranda Du refused to grant an injunction that would have prohibited, on environmental grounds, the archaeological excavation of cultural sites at Thacker Pass. The judge rejected claims that the preliminary archaeological digging (of numerous hand-dug holes and seven 40-meter trenches) would cause irreparable environmental harm to the area.

However, some of the recent media coverage fails to clarify two crucial points. First, the July 23rd decision pertains only to the request for a preliminary injunction, rather than to the underlying legal case itself. Second, and even more importantly, on July 19th new plaintiffs moved to intervene in the legal case.

What is a Preliminary Injunction?

A preliminary injunction is a court order that preserves the status quo between relevant parties while the judge makes larger decisions about the underlying case. Since American law assumes that money can repair all harm, the legal system often allows companies to continue their projects even during an active lawsuit. If the judge rules that the company (or the BLM) violated the law, these defendants can compensate the harmed party with money. However, many judges recognize that money is not always an adequate reparation for harm to the environment or to cultural resources. Therefore, in such cases, judges often entertain a preliminary injunction motion.

Why did Judge Du reject the first preliminary injunction request?

In considering the environmental groups’ motion for a preliminary injunction, Judge Du acknowledged the possibility that the initial, archaeological excavations mentioned above could cause irreparable environmental harm. Although the judge ultimately decided that the smaller archaeological excavations would not cause that level of disturbance, she has not yet ruled on the environmental threat posed by the entire project.

What comes next for the environmental lawsuit?

The underlying legal case (filed back in February by Western Watersheds Project, Wildlands Defense, Great Basin Resource Watch, and Basin and Range Watch), challenges the Bureau of Land Management’s Record of Decision, which permitted the corporation’s proposed lithium mine on public land. If the judge rules in favor of the plaintiffs and against the BLM, the Record of Decision will be suspended or vacated entirely. The judge’s final decision on that case is slated for January 2022 and will assess and respond to the environmental harm of the entire proposed mining project, which includes chemical processing facilities and a 400-foot deep open pit that would destroy miles of surface area in Thacker Pass.

Lithium Nevada investors are foolish to overlook the fact that the primary legal decision on the Thacker Pass project still remains to be made. Even more significantly, Judge Du recently accepted the addition of local tribal groups to the case. The judge acknowledged that these new plaintiffs make stronger arguments – on cultural grounds – against both the archaeological digging and the entire project.

Why and how are Native Tribes and organizations getting involved?

The night before the July 21st hearing, the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and the People of Red Mountain (a committee of land protectors from the Fort McDermitt Paiute-Shoshone reservation) made a formal motion to intervene in the case. Conceding that the lawsuit filed by Western Watersheds, etc., did not adequately represent tribal concerns, Judge Du admitted these two groups as plaintiffs to the case. The Burns Paiute Tribe, making similar arguments, has since joined the case as well. In July 2021, the judge decided to consolidate the lawsuits by adding these three indigenous groups’ lawsuit, as well as the lawsuit filed by local rancher Edward Bartell, to the original case filed by the environmental groups.

On July 27th, the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and the People of Red Mountain moved for their own preliminary injunction, on the grounds that digging up cultural sites — including burial sites and a massacre site — would do irreparable spiritual and cultural harm to them as indigenous people whose ancestors lived in and around Peehee Mu’huh.

The indigenous groups also argue that the BLM failed to adequately consult with all relevant tribes before issuing the Record of Decision.

What will happen if Judge Du grants the Preliminary Injunction request?

If the judge supports the tribes by granting this preliminary injunction after the hearing scheduled for August 27th, the corporation and the contracted archaeological group cannot disturb Thacker Pass until the end of January at the earliest. Receiving this injunction would mean that if the BLM issues an Archaeological Resources Protection Action (ARPA) permit to Far Western Anthropological Group, allowing archaeologists to begin trenching and digging at Thacker Pass, the BLM would be doing so illegally. Granting the preliminary injunction on August 27th would likely protect Thacker Pass until at least spring of 2022, since Lithium Nevada has stated they would have to wait for winter snows to melt before digging.

What if Judge Du refuses to grant the injunction?

Even if the judge refuses to grant the injunction in August 2021, both the BLM and Lithium Nevada still face many legal hurdles. The BLM must contend with a separate lawsuit filed by local rancher Ed Bartell and not yet heard in court. This lawsuit raises environmental concerns, including threats of further depletion of the already over-allocated aquifer and harm to Lahontan cutthroat trout, a Federally-listed threatened species. Bartell and another local rancher have also challenged water rights transfers which the corporation needs for the mine.

When will the preliminary injunctions be over, and the full lawsuit be heard?

Judge Du has stated that she intends to decide on this case by early 2022.

If the judge rules in favor of the tribes, the BLM will have to restart the consultation process. This process would need to include any tribes that wish to be included, and up to ten tribes in the region have demonstrable cultural ties to the Thacker Pass. The consultation process could easily take 1-2 years, during which time local, national, and international opposition may continue to build.

If the Judge rules in favor of Bartell and/or the environmental groups, the NEPA process may need to be revisited, which could similarly take years.

Meanwhile, Lithium Nevada also still needs air and water permits from the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection, Eagle Take permits from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the ARPA permit from the BLM before construction can begin. The corporation also still needs the BLM to set the mining reclamation bond amount.

Conclusion

Contrary to statements made by Lithium Nevada and recent media coverage, this nefarious and ill-conceived lithium mining project still remains rather far from a reality. The fate of Peehee Mu’huh truly does still hang in the balance, and if any of the current plaintiffs win their cases, this mine could take many years to properly permit. It may never happen. It is essential that all people stand up against the destruction of the planet, poisoning of water, rampant colonialism, harm to local communities, and greenwashing represented by lithium mining projects like this.

In the name of lithium

The history of the industrial era is one of colonization and extraction. This continues today, as we who work to protect the land know well.

The film In the name of lithium is a documentary about the struggle of Argentine indigenous communities to prevent their salt flats, which contain one of the largest lithium reserves in the world, from becoming a “sacrifice zone” in favor of reduction of climate change.

The film is free to watch on Vimeo through August 9. You can turn on subtitles for English if you do not speak Spanish.

As an article about the film notes, Lithium Americas, in partnership with Chinese company Ganfeng, is constructing a lithium mine in Jujuy, one of the locations where the film was made. An investigation by Fundación Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (FARN) found that Minera Exar (an Argentine company formed by Lithium Americas and Ganfeng Lithium and dedicated to the development and production of lithium in the Salar Cauchari-Olaroz) failed to provide free and informed consultation with indigenous communities who own territory where Minera Exar’s lithium project is located. According to statements gathered from community members in FARN’s investigation, Minera Exar also failed to disclose relevant information on risk factors and potential environmental impacts.

Thacker Pass / Peehee Mu’huh is just one of so many industrial sacrifice zones around the world. Remember too, that along with lithium, EVs and batteries require copper, cobalt, graphite, bauxite, nickel, and rare earth metals, all of which require sacrifice zones.

Stand with us, stand with People of Red Mountain, stand with the people in Jujuy, Argentina; stand with all people and lands and wild beings around the world being sacrificed for industry and say NO!

For more information about the film, visit https://enelnombredellitio.org.ar/

Image of the salt flats in the northern province of Jujuy in Argentina by FARN.

Please donate to help support our legal work!

This has been a busy legal week at Peehee Mu’huh / Thacker Pass.

As you may recall, four conservation groups who are suing the BLM and Lithium Nevada had earlier filed an injunction motion to block archeological digging, because it would damage critical habitat for the Greater sage-grouse, until their lawsuit can be heard in court. The Reno federal district court judge denied that injunction motion, saying that the environmental damage from the archeological digging wouldn’t be enough harm. Our position, of course, is that any construction or digging on site is too much harm.

The Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and Atsa Koodakuh Wyh Nuwu/People of Red Mountain argued to be allowed to intervene (join) the lawsuit filed by the four conservation groups, and the judge ruled this week that they can join the lawsuit.

Once this decision was made, the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and Atsa Koodakuh Wyh Nuwu/People of Red Mountain then filed an injunction motion to stop the archeological digging, for cultural reasons based in the National Historic Preservation Act. This asks the judge to stop the digging for different reasons than previously denied by the judge.

The BLM and Lithium Nevada have until August 12 to respond to this injunction motion, and we anticipate oral arguments about the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and Atsa Koodakuh Wyh Nuwu/People of Red Mountain injunction motion will be heard August 23.

The following articles help explain these legal efforts in more detail:

Federal court holds hearing on Thacker Pass Lithium Mine

Native Americans win ruling to join lawsuit against Lithium Americas project

Tribes seek order banning digging at Nevada lithium mine

As you might guess, all this legal work takes a lot of time, effort, and money, so please donate to Protect Thacker Pass and/or Atsa Koodakuh Wyh Nuwu/People of Red Mountain if you can. Thank you!!

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Electric Cars and Oil Both Accelerate Us Towards Ecological Collapse: From Line 3 to Thacker Pass

The great poet and playwright James Baldwin wrote in 1953 that “People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction.”

Perhaps never has this been truer than in this era of converging ecological crises: global warming, biodiversity collapse, desertification and soil erosion, ocean acidification, dead zones, plastic pollution, sprawling habitat destruction, and the total saturation of our environment with radioactive or toxic chemicals.

Ignorance is not bliss; it is dangerous.

That is why I am so concerned that, while searching for solutions to global warming, many people imagine that fossil fuels can be simply replaced with solar and wind energy, that gas tanks can be swapped for lithium batteries, and that this will solve the problem.

For years, I have been arguing that this is wrong, and that we need much more fundamental changes to our economy, our society, and our way of life.

For the last 6 months, I have been camped at a place in northern Nevada called Thacker Pass, which is threatened by a vast planned open-pit mine that threatens to destroy 28 square miles of biodiverse sagebrush habitat, release millions of tons of greenhouse gas emissions, bulldoze Paiute and Shoshone sacred sites, and leave behind piles of toxic waste for generations to come.

Electric cars and fossil fuel cars don’t differ as much as lithium mining companies would like us to believe. In fact, a direct link connects the water protectors fighting the new Line 3 oil pipeline in the Ojibwe territory in Minnesota and the land defenders working to protect Peehee Mu’huh, the original name for Thacker Pass in the Paiute language.

The new Line 3 pipeline would carry almost a million barrels a day of crude oil from the Alberta Tar Sands, the largest and most destructive industrial project on the planet, to refineries in the United States. On the way, it would threaten more than 200 waterbodies and carve a path through what CNN called “some of the most pristine woods and wetlands in North America.” The project would be directly responsible for millions of tons of greenhouse gas emissions.

For the last 7 years, indigenous water protectors and allies have rallied, petitioned, established resistance camps, held events, protested, and engaged in direct action to stop the Line 3 pipeline from being built. More than 350 people have been arrested over the past few months, but pipeline construction continues to progress for now.

Ironically, the proposed Thacker Pass lithium mine would require importing nearly 700,000 tons of sulfur per year — roughly equivalent to the mass of two Empire State Buildings — for processing the lithium. This sulfur would likely come (at least in part) from the Alberta tar sands, perhaps even from oil that would flow through Line 3.

Almost all sulfur, which is used in a wide range of chemical processes and fertilizers, comes from oil and gas refineries, where it’s a byproduct of producing low-sulfur fuels to meet air-quality regulations around acid rain.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, tar sands contain 11 times as much sulfur as conventional heavy crude oil, and literal “mountains” of sulfur are piling up in Alberta and at other refineries which process tar sands fuel. Sulfur sales revenue is important to the economics of tar sands oil extraction. One report released in the early years of tar sands extraction found that “developing a plan for storing, selling or disposing of the sulfur [extracted during processing] will help to ensure the profitability of oil sands operations.”

This means that Thacker Pass lithium destined for use in “green” electric cars and solar energy storage batteries would almost certainly be directly linked to the Line 3 pipeline and the harms caused by the Tar Sands, including the destruction of boreal forest, the poisoning of the Athabasca River and other waters, and an epidemic of cancers, rare diseases, and missing and murdered indigenous women facing Alberta First Nations. And, of course, the tar sands significantly exacerbate global warming. Canadian greenhouse gas emissions have skyrocketed over recent decades as tar sands oil production has increased.

Mining is exceptionally destructive. There is no getting around it. According to the EPA, hard-rock mining is the single largest source of water pollution in the United States. The same statistic probably applies globally, but no one really knows how many rivers have been poisoned, how many mountains blown up, how many meadows and forests bulldozed for the sake of mining.

The water protectors at Line 3 fight to protect Ojibwe territory, wild rice beds, and critical wildlife habitat from a tar sands oil pipeline, oil spills, and the greenhouse gas emissions that would harm the entire world. Here at Thacker Pass, we fight the same fight. The indigenous people here, too, face the destruction of their first foods; the poisoning of their water; the desecration of their sacred sites; and the probability of a toxic legacy for future generations. I fight alongside them for this place.

Our fights are not separate. Our planet will not cool, our waters will not begin to flow clean again, our forests will not regrow, and our children will not have security unless we organize, stop the destruction, and build a new way of life. The Line 3 pipeline, and all the other pipelines, must be stopped. And so must the lithium mines.

The wind howls at Thacker Pass. Rain beats against the walls of my tent. A steady drip falls onto the foot of my sleeping bag. It’s June, but we are a mile above sea level. Summer is slow in coming here, and so the storm rages outside, and I cannot sleep. Nightmare visions of open-pit mines, climate breakdown, and ecological collapse haunt me.

James Baldwin gave good advice. In this time, we must not shut our eyes to the reality that industrial production, including the production of oil and the production of electric cars, results in industrial devastation. And with our eyes wide open, we must take action to protect our only home, and the future generations who rely on us.

Also available at The Sierra Nevada Ally, Dispatches from Thacker Pass series.

Pronghorn