Judge to decide whether lithium mine activity can move forward as Fort McDermitt tribal members, Reno-Sparks Indian Colony seek to intervene
July 22, 2021
In front of a federal courthouse in downtown Reno on Wednesday morning, more than 50 people from Indigenous groups across the state gathered in a peaceful protest against the proposed Thacker Pass lithium mine north of Winnemucca. Protesters waved signs at cars driving by.
Their message to those inside the eighth-floor courtroom was clear: “Protect Thacker Pass.” “Consultation is NOT Consent.” “Fort McDermitt Tribal Descendants Against Lithium Nevada.”
U.S. District Court Judge Miranda Du’s courtroom was filled on Wednesday with Indigenous activists, environmentalists and employees for Lithium Nevada, the company developing the mine. Company shareholders joined through a phone line.
It was an important hearing for a lithium project at the center of an energy transition away from fossil fuels and toward electrification. Since federal land managers approved the mine in the final days of the Trump administration, it has drawn scrutiny from Native American tribes in the Great Basin, environmental groups and the rural communities that would surround the mine.
The hearing stemmed from a lawsuit, filed by four environmental groups in February. In their suit, the groups challenged the government’s approval of the mine, arguing that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management fast-tracked a key environmental review and did not fully weigh the mine’s impacts. Now they are asking the court to halt mine-related activities until the issue is settled.
At issue on Wednesday was whether the court should grant an injunction — an order that would stop impending archeological digging at the mine site — as litigation proceeds.
As early as next Thursday, July 29, federal land managers had been expected to give Lithium Nevada permission to begin trenching and digging as part of a Historic Properties Treatment Plan to collect and catalogue artifacts. In court filings, the company argued that the work is a prerequisite to installing the water and power lines needed to begin construction in early 2022.
Last week, tribal descendents of the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe, which is near the mine, held a protest at the Carson City headquarters of Lithium Nevada’s archeological contractor. The group of tribal members, Atsa koodakuh wyh Nuwu, or the People of Red Mountain, left a letter on the contractor’s door and asked to meet with the company.
Talasi Brooks, an attorney representing the environmental groups, said that excavation activities would cause an “irreparable harm” to the winter habitat for Greater sage-grouse, a sensitive bird species that relies on sagebrush, quiet places, and faces multiple threats in the Great Basin.
“There will likely be more sage-grouse mortality because of this habitat destruction,” argued Brooks, a staff attorney for the Western Watersheds Project, one of the plaintiffs in the case.
The public interest, she argued, leaned toward granting an injunction that Brooks said would only cause the mining company a “temporary delay,” even if the court ultimately upholds the environmental review.
The judge, who peppered the attorneys with questions about substantive and procedural claims, plans to rule on the injunction by July 29. But that date is now important for another reason: A new motion could bring additional arguments into the courtroom.
The day before the hearing, the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and tribal members from the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe filed a motion to intervene as a plaintiff on the side of the environmental groups. They argue that federal land managers, in approving the mine, violated provisions of the National Historic Preservation Act that require input from tribes and the public.
The Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, the motion notes, “attaches cultural and religious significance to historic properties that will be affected by the Thacker Pass Lithium Mine Project.” The claims in the motion also represent the People of Red Mountain, who consider Thacker Pass sacred, the site of a massacre and a hiding spot when soldiers forced their ancestors onto reservations.
In a brief filed yesterday, lawyers for the groups seeking to intervene in the case said the People of Red Mountain “preserve and pass on oral histories about Thacker Pass (“Peehee mu’huh”), regularly perform ceremonies in Peehee mu’huh, hunt and gather in Peehee mu’huh, plan on performing ceremony, hunting, and gathering in Peehee mu’huh in the future, and are concerned with the Project’s effects on historic properties located within its footprint.
Read the rest at The Nevada Independent. Photo of Gary McKinney, a member of the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes of the Duck Valley Indian Reservation, by David Calvert for The Nevada Independent.