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