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.

The Lust for Money

Earlier today, Judge Miranda Du rejected requests from the Reno-Sparks Indian Tribe, Burns Paiute Tribe, and Atsa Koodakuh wyh Nuwu/People of Red Mountain to put an emergency halt on planned archeological digging for the Thacker Pass lithium mine.

As I watch Lithium Americas investors online celebrating Judge Miranda Du’s decision to allow the removal of sacred artifacts from Thacker Pass, I feel sick to my stomach.

“Go LAC!!” writes one investor. “Dirt shall move!” writes another. “Argentina online next year. Thacker Pass one less road block. Almost 500 million in bank. Sitting so damn pretty right now.” says a third.

Another writes of how many stocks he owns, punctuating his boast with an emoji showing a human face, eyebrows raised, panting as if in a caricature of lust with dollar signs for eyes and on the extended tongue.
Is this how the world is saved? By lust for money?

Sometime soon, bulldozers and excavators will arrive at Thacker Pass to begin “archeological digging” — a whitewashed term for the legally sanctioned looting of cultural artifacts and sacred sites. And afterwards, unless they are stopped, this whole mountain will be shattered and carted off.

The flesh of Earth, turned into profit.

I am disgusted and angry, but not surprised. This is a pattern of our culture, and history repeats itself.

In the mid-1800’s, colonization spilled over into Nevada territory. Miners, settlers, and soldiers gained footholds along rivers and where springs made life possible. With axes, the pine nut trees were felled, and like the mass-murder of the buffalo on the plains, the indigenous people’s ability to fight was cracked. With bullets, disease, and starvation, Paiute, Goshute, and Shoshone people were pushed out, corralled, and marched to reservations and boarding schools. “Kill the Indian, save the man,” they proclaimed. And now the mountains belonged to the conquerors, and they called it right. They called it manifest destiny.

Today, miners come for the land. They come for the water, 4.6 million gallons of it per day. They come for the sacred sites. The springs. The antelope. The ancestors in the soil. “We have complied with the National Historic Preservation Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and our duty to consult with tribes,” they say. They claim the mountains belong to them, and while manifest destiny is officially out of favor, economic development is not. Besides, this is a green project, right? It is our destiny.
How is this different?

Three hundred and thirty-nine days ago, a few days before I visited Thacker Pass for the first time, I walked into a forest near the Columbia River. Finding a quiet spot in the dappled shade, I lay on my back on the dirt, and closed my eyes. My mind traveled to Thacker Pass.

First, I imagined the silence of this land, where wind and the hum of insects is often the loudest noise. I imagined ants, jackrabbits, antelope, and yes, human beings crisscrossing Thacker Pass on their ancient paths. From harmony, my vision shifted to the threat now facing the land.

“[G]reed comes,” I wrote in February, “wearing the flesh of human beings and armored in corporate law. Greed eyes the mountain and sees not the pronghorn or the burrowing owl or the ants venturing out from their colony, but only what he can take by breaking it all — by violating stone and wind and water, by transgressing of 16 million years of sacred silence. Greed sees that this mountain is full of lithium — the new white oil. Greed is a good storyteller, and he speaks of jobs and opportunities and investments, of stock options and shareholder returns, and electric cars. He speaks of saving the world.”

Now, for the first time since I have arrived here at Thacker Pass, destruction is imminent. The corporate laws that I wrote of back in February are playing their part. Bureaucracy, that indispensable tool in the arsenal of a democratic empire, has spoken. In court, administrative rules allowed the state to argue that “you had a chance to participate in the process, and you missed it.” And what is morally right, what is good for the land, what is wanted by the local indigenous people, ranchers, and farmers, becomes subordinate to what is written in administrative codes and lawbooks.

I wrote, in February, that “Right now, greed gathers his men and his machines, his drillers and borers and furnaces, his explosives and his chemicals and his politicians and his bankers. And he schemes, and he plans, and he wheels and he deals. He waits for his moment to press the plunger down, to close the circuit, to shatter the mountainside.”

That vision is close to becoming real.

And so we move deeper into the sixth mass extinction event, wallets grow fat as nature grows small.

In her recent artwork, the brilliant political cartoonist Stephanie McMillan, whose work I truly admire, asks this question: what do you do when your heart is breaking?

I pondered that question this morning. In Stephanie’s artwork, the human suffering from heartbreak curls into a ball, and answers the question by saying, “Nail it shut and wrap barbed wire around it.” But the bird beside the poor human has another answer: “Or you could let it open.”

The decision from Judge Du didn’t tell us anything new today. We all know that the courts don’t protect our living planet. We all know that the courts don’t protect indigenous peoples and lands. The courts enforce the law, and the law favors the wealthy over the people and the planet. And so Judge Du writes 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.”

Nothing has changed at Thacker Pass. For months now, the headsman’s axe has been raised. Now, it teeters on the brink of descending. We knew this time would come.

The question for us is this: will we wrap our hearts in barbed wire and nail them shut by ignoring injustice, walking away from reality, and lusting for money?

Or will we let our hearts open, and commit to protecting the land?

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.


We are heading towards a future of massively increased mining if we cannot change direction

The plan to “electrify everything” that is rapidly taking over all economic and policy planning around the world means that mining for metals and minerals will increase dramatically to supply demand for technologies like EVs and so much more.

Metals Demand

Take a look at this image from the International Energy Agency (IEA) report “The Role of Critical Minerals in Clean Energy Transitions“, and you can see how the demand for various metals and minerals will skyrocket in the coming decades. The IEA writes in this report that “Clean energy transitions will have far-reaching consequences for metals and mining.”

And, as we’ve posted here before, they write: “…mineral demand for use in EVs and battery storage is a major force, growing at least thirty times to 2040. Lithium sees the fastest growth, with demand growing by over 40 times in the SDS by 2040, followed by graphite, cobalt and nickel (around 20-25 times).” (SDS refers to a Sustainable Development Scenario tool the IEA uses to project demand for energy to meet the various scenarios laid out under the Paris Climate Agreement goals.)

In a separate report, “Net Zero by 2050: A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector“, the IEA writes: “The energy transition requires substantial quantities of critical minerals, and their supply emerges as a significant growth area. The total market size of critical minerals like copper, cobalt, manganese and various rare earth metals grows almost sevenfold between 2020 and 2030 in the net zero pathway. Revenues from those minerals are larger than revenues from coal well before 2030. This creates substantial new opportunities for mining companies.”

They write “substantial new opportunities for mining companies” as if it’s a good thing. As if all of this mining isn’t destroying life on planet Earth. How policy makers and the corporations with they work with can go forward with these plans without seeing the devastation that they will cause is just incomprehensible.

Metals mining alone causes > 50% of all environmental pollution annually in the US. This % is likely to increase dramatically with the prospects of the fast growing mining sector thanks to Biden’s executive order to ensure domestic supplies of metals and minerals.

Mining is the most destructive human activity on Earth. Those who promote “net zero”, “clean energy”, and “clean technology” like EVs want MORE of this destructive activity at a time when we know that we are in a sixth mass extinction, that habitat loss and over development are causing far more species and biodiversity loss than any other factor, and that without healthy, clean, intact ecosystems on Earth we doom ourselves along with countless other species on Earth to certain extinction.

Some have said that the Thacker Pass Lithium mine is a “benign” mining project, especially in comparison to other kinds of mining, like copper mining. But as you can see from the image above from the IEA report, EVs require large amounts of copper, which will lead to an increase in copper mining. Lithium is just one of many metals and minerals required by “clean technology” such as EVs, so you can’t separate a supposedly “benign” lithium mine from all those other kinds of mines: they go hand-in-hand, because if you want to build EVs you need all of these materials too, not just lithium.

(Note that we do not see the Thacker Pass Lithium Mine project as any more “benign” than any other kind of mine — digging a massive pit in the ground and piling toxic waste rock and tailings on the land destroys the land no matter what kind of mine it is.)

Reducing energy demand is mentioned only once, as a passing thought, in the 224 page Net Zero report and only once in the 287 page Role of Critical Minerals report.

Art by Kim Gillis: The blood of the Earth and all who have been sacrificed to mining, car culture, and industrialization. Thank you Kim!


Habitat Destruction for Lithium is Climate and Extinction Crisis Denialism

By Justin McAffee for the Sierra Nevada Ally, July 9, 2021

What if I told you that Glenn Miller’s opinion piece about the Thacker Pass lithium project was a form of climate change denialism? He argues that lithium is necessary to convert our automobile transportation economy from fossil fuels to electric and we should move forward with the construction of the largest open-pit lithium mine in the nation’s history, indigenous people’s concerns aside, because America needs more cars. He claims this will limit global warming.

This perspective flat out denies the reality that the loss of biodiversity poses as great a risk to humanity as climate change. In fact, the loss of biodiversity contributes directly to the climate crisis. Instead of promoting the protection of biodiversity, Glenn Miller proposes we do the opposite, and destroy a large area of Nevada wilderness.

Let’s be clear: what will limit global warming is eliminating carbon pollution. He fails to mention that electric cars would draw their power from the electric grid, which is currently fueled by 70-80% fossil fuels. Maybe that will improve, but at what cost? If we listen to Glenn Miller, we must destroy vast areas of habitat, including some 9 million acres of public land in Nevada that is being opened to solar development, and many millions more in the American West. We must also engage in an explosion of mining for lithium, copper, cobalt and other rare-earth minerals. One begins to wonder whether this is a solution or a cause of climate change.

According to a study published in Science, one of the top peer-reviewed science publications in the world: “Current rates of extinction are about 1000 times the likely background rate of extinction. Future rates depend on many factors and are poised to increase. Although there has been rapid progress in developing protected areas, such efforts are not ecologically representative, nor do they optimally protect biodiversity.”

Read the rest at the Sierra Nevada Ally