“The purpose of regulatory permitting is to organize and legalize the destruction of the planet.”

As readers are aware, I’ve been embroiled in fighting the Thacker Pass lithium mine for the last three years. What you may not know is that the entire region around Thacker Pass, which is known as the McDermitt Caldera, was formed by the Yellowstone Hot Spot 16 million years ago and is rich in lithium because of this geology.

With lithium demand skyrocketing, this entire area — much of it wilderness-quality habitat for rare and threatened wildlife — is is threatened by a “new gold rush.” Many more mines are coming.

First among those is a project in initial stages of “exploration” proposed by the Australian mining corporation Jindalee (operating through a U.S. subsidiary, HiTech Minerals Incorporated) located in Malheur County, Oregon, about 20 miles north of Thacker Pass.

The following is a public comment I submitted to the Bureau of Land Management yesterday, which was the deadline for public input on what is called the “scoping” stage of permitting for additional drilling on the site. But in a democracy, the public comment period never ends. If you are opposed to the HiTech Minerals project, I recommend you contact the Bureau of Land Management Office in Vale, OR and Oregon legislators to explain your concerns in detail. Please send any comments you make to Protect Thacker Pass, or contact us with more ideas or to collaborate.

Please note that my comment begins with a discussion of why BLM’s authority is illigitimate.

To Whom It May Concern:

My name is Max Wilbert. I am writing because the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is considering whether or not to authorize HiTech Minerals Incorporated to conduct up to five years of exploratory geologic drilling projects on public lands in the northern McDermitt Caldera, in Malheur County, Oregon as part of early-stage feasibility studies for a major lithium mine.

These comments are based on my review of the Exploration Plans of Operations (version 3) available on the BLM website. I am a concerned individual and for the past 20 years have worked with environmental organizations to address global warming and conserve the natural environment. I am also the author of a book called Bright Green Lies that analyzes the harms caused by mining lithium, among other metals.

Before I say anything about the exploration project in detail—rest assured, I do indeed have “substantive comments”—I must contest the notion that the Bureau of Land Management has meaningful authority to issue such a permit. (NB for BLM employees: this is not meant as a personal attack on you. It’s a historical critique of the institution).

By definition, a permit is a legal document giving permission for activities that would otherwise be prohibited. These permits protect the corporation from legal liability for destructive actions that would be punishable by law if committed without a permit. The permit in question would allow HiTech employees and contractors to drill a well and up to 267 boreholes, each with an associated drilling pad. It would also authorize the construction of 30.2 miles of access roads, and destroy up to 99.2 acres of sagebrush habitat. Doing this without a permit is illegal.

Therefore, the fundamental purpose of this permitting process is to bureaucratically organize and legalize the destruction of the planet. 

Yes, I understand that mitigation is part of this process. But fundamentally, the land, water, wildlife, air, and cultural resources will be worse off if this project is carried out than they would otherwise be, and thus the point stands.

We are living a time of ecological crisis. A paper published in the prestigious journal Science on September 13, 2023 (“Earth beyond six of nine planetary boundaries” by Richardson et. al.) states that humans have exceeded six of Earth’s nine planetary boundaries, “suggesting that Earth is now well outside of the safe operating space for humanity.” That paper states that “Earth system modeling of different levels of the transgression of the climate and land system change boundaries illustrates that these anthropogenic impacts on Earth system must be considered in a systemic context.” The 6th mass extinction is ongoing, driven entirely by human activity such as mining. We are in a climate crisis, a pollution crisis, a water crisis, and more.

The Bureau of Land Management permitting process is not the result of a meaningful democratic process held by fully informed and empowered people. It is an antiquated, anti-democratic bureaucratic maze that de facto privileges the rights of corporations and their owners to extract wealth at the expense of other people, land, non-humans, and future generations.

Consider the power of corporate lawyers and contractors to influence this process compared to poor, mostly uneducated tribal elders from the nearby reservations for whom English is a second language.

This is not your fault. There are many good people working inside Federal Agencies. Rather, it’s the result of gradual expansions in corporate power that have undermined democracy dating back well over a century, of greater corporate legal power, of the 1872 mining law, and of national policy corrupted by greed, lobbying, and revolving doors. But we should all be aware of what is happening here.

The great corporate anthropologist Jane Anne Morris wrote that “It is not corporations but the public that is regulated by regulatory agencies. Their main functions are now to legitimize public harm, act as energy sinks for citizen activism, and protect corporations from upset citizens.” And in fact, the first U.S. regulatory body, the Interstate Commerce Commission, was set up with assent and deep involvement of the industries it regulated.

There was once a time when people had direct recourse against corporate pirates such as HiTech, Jindalee, and the people behind them: Lindsay Dudfield, Brett Marsh,

Rebecca Ball, Darren Wates, Justin Mannolini, Paul Brown, and others.

Throughout most of human history, anyone working to poison the local water supply or destroy vast swathes of land such as these people would either be banished or otherwise severely punished. In many societies, such people would have been regarded as sociopaths. Now, the illusion of a participatory process (“you submitted your public comment, didn’t you?”) and the legal fiction called a “corporation” creates an effective buffer between angry communities and these pillagers.

As Frederic Bastiat wrote in 1848, “When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men in a society, over the course of time they create for themselves a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that glorifies it.”

My understanding of BLM’s permitting process is that it is difficult to deny permits for this type of exploration. However, I know that it is not impossible; in July, BLMcanceled a prior approval for lithium exploration near the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, citing impacts to groundwater and sensitive species. In that case, BLM’s letter stated that “Based on the information before it, BLM concludes that [the exploration project] operations will cause surface disturbance greater than casual use” on federally protected lands and water.

I posit that this exploration project will cause surface disturbance greater than casual use in the McDermitt Caldera. The harms caused by this drilling project could have ramifications for decades and even centuries. If the lithium mining project goes forward, those disturbances could extend to geologic time scales. Therefore, I urge BLM to deny this permit.

Here are my specific concerns with the EPO:

What about areas previously undisturbed? Has there been any census of how much of the project area is essentially intact, “old-growth” or mature sagebrush steppe, and how much of this land will be destroyed? Has there been any calculation of how long reclamation will take to produce a plant, fungi, and animal assemblage and function that is comparable to pre-disturbance conditions? Are we talking decades? Centuries? If this analysis has not been conducted, why not?

If Turner Creek, Payne Creek, and Mine Creek are indeed intermittent, how will underground flows into the aquifer and McDermitt Creek, and aboveground flows during the wet season, be affected by pumping in the project area? How you do you know? Is this confirmed by independent parties? What is the worst-case scenario?

On page 8, HiTech states that their water supply well “will be constructed to isolate the upper sedimentary rocks from the underlying volcanic rocks and will produce groundwater solely from the volcanic layer rocks below sedimentary rocks to protect groundwater baseflow in nearby streams. In addition, the water supply well is located at least one-quarter mile from any surface water.”

How do you know this is true? Where is the proof? Is the hydrologist working on this being paid by HiTech? If so, there is a conflict of interest here and any testimony should be discounted. How will pumping affect the hydraulic gradient? How will pumping affect radial flow throughout the project area? What is the aquifer permeability in the area? What models are used to predict streamflow reductions or lack thereof? Analytical depletion functions? Or more complex, site-specific models?

Also, where is Appendix E so we can verify this information for ourselves?

According to PSU (https://www.e-education.psu.edu/earth111/node/929), “In general, larger cones of depression result from larger pumping rates, higher permeability or lower storativity, and longer elapsed time.” How will continuous pumping for 5 months of the year (the dry months, it should be noted) affect summertime and fall minimum stream flows? What is the confidence with which these projections can be made? What will occur if the downstream surface water flows decline? How will blame be apportioned? Given the lack of other pumping projects and disturbance in the area, can HiTech be halted from further drilling in this situation?

What will be the downstream effects on the Quinn River drainage as whole from this pumping? Isn’t the Quinn River aquifer already over-allocated? Why is additional pumping being allowed in a region in drought that is already overpumped? What is the hydrologic impact to the region of using 10,000 gallons per drill rig per 24-hour workday?

Any study of hydrological impacts should include cumulative impacts on this drainage basin and downstream basins, e.g. how this EPO and future mining operations could exacerbate water scarcity due to climate change, weather patterns, historical and current overpumping, etc.

As Ka’ila Ferrell Williams stated in her letter to Oregon Governor Brown:

“McDermitt Creek and its tributaries provide important habitat for the federally threatened Lahontan cutthroat trout. For decades, state and federal agencies, local landowners and public lands users have undertaken restoration efforts to establish a metapopulation of the species in this system, which is the only location capable of supporting a resilient and diverse population in the larger management unit that spans Nevada and Oregon. In many streams, inputs of cold, clean groundwater are critical to maintaining the streamflows and cool water needed by these fish. Oregon should not authorize groundwater pumping when it lacks adequate data to understand the impacts on Lahontan cutthroat trout habitat.

Oregon is in the midst of a decades-long drought, with southeastern Oregon being particularly affected. In six of the last ten years, Oregon’s Governor has declared a drought emergency in Malheur County, underscoring the severity of water shortages in the region.

Without adequate data, it is impossible to determine whether or not HiTech’s proposed well, even temporary pumping for five years, would have no detrimental or adverse impacts to water availability or quality available in the McDermitt Creek basin.”

Additionally, roughly six miles of streams which are “special status fish habitat” run directly through the project area. What are the impacts on these streams? What monitoring will take place? How will drilling operations and overnight lighting affect invertebrates which provide food for special status fish? If these impacts have not been considered, why not?

According to Western Rivers Conservancy,

“Lahontan cutthroat—the state fish of Nevada—are a large, bright-orange species of cutthroat that were once abundant across thousands of miles of streams in the Great Basin. Today, the fish are on the brink of extinction because the pristine, cold-water habitat they depend on has been disappearing for a century, coupled with hybridization and competition from non-native fish. The primary hope for Lahontan cutthroat lies with the increasingly rare perennial streams that flow cold and clear through the dry sagebrush country of the Great Basin. Chief among these streams is McDermitt Creek, which drains the southern slopes of Oregon’s Trout Creek Mountains and crosses the state line into the Great Basin of Nevada.”

In regards to Page 23, why is the arbitrary level of “a 100-year 24-hour storm event” considered the threshold for high precipitation? Ephemeral streams may flow with far less precipitation, and operating heavy equipment could increase downstream siltation in LCT spawning areas.

The applicant plans up to 267 drill sites with depths varying between 300 and 800 feet. The applicant states that prior drill holes all encountered groundwater. How will 267 new drill holes affect groundwater and surface water flows? Will these holes cut through rock layers allow groundwater flow to drain into lower geologic layers, reducing recharge rates in McDermitt Creek and Quinn River? How will this concern be mitigated? Will these affect natural springs? How do we know?

In reference to Section 3.20, what species are being protected by the drilling timeframe? Why was this timeframe chosen? What evidence is there that this timeframe is sufficient to protect the species in question? If these species require such protection, why is this exploration project being allowed in the first place? Where do the species go during the period that drilling would take place? What evidence is there that this drilling period would protect the species in question?

On page 13, applicant states that “sumps will be fenced,” but photographic evidence from applicants previous operations (see Wildlands Defense/Katie Fite) in the project area show that fencing efforts were laughable. This corporation has shown itself not to be trustworthy. I also share Ross Taylor’s concerns about sump sizing, overflow, leaching, pollution, chemical load, impacts on fish, effects on wildlife who attempt to enter or drink, storm drainage, and so on.

On page 22, applicant states that groundwater flows for previous wells ranged from 14 gpm to 38 gpm. I share Ross Taylor’s concerns, as replicated here:

“How can groundwater be completely contained in a sump that can only handle 7,500 gallons? Do the math – if HiTech is proposing that drill sites will be operating 24/7 and the amount of groundwater encountered in previously drilled exploration holes produced 14 to 38 gallons of groundwater per minute, containment in the proposed sumps is not possible. The conservative 14 gallons/minute equates to 20,160 gallons in 24 hours and the 38 gallons/minutes equates to 54,720 gallons in 24 hours. Also, these values don’t account for the volume of drill cuttngs, return of water pumped into the bore hole, and return of drill lubrication fluid.

‘Groundwater removed from exploration boreholes during drilling is returned to a sump located on the drill pad, where water infiltrates back into the formation’. This statement suggests that returned groundwater, drill cuttings and lubrication fluid will be discharged into the surrounding environment. What are the long-term effects of this effluent on McDermit Creek, its tributaries and listed/sensitive species such as LCT? What happens to heavy metals in the effluent, like the mercury known to exist in the soils of the project area?”

Section 4.6 indicates that sumps adjacent to drilling sites are permeable and fluids contained in them will leach into groundwater. What contaminants will this fluid contain? Will these sumps be monitored by an independent third party for contaminants, spills, and overflow? What are the long term effects of this pollution?

The applicant states that drilling will continue 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for 5 months a year, for up to five years. That’s a cumulative 2 years and one month of intensive industrial activity in what has until now been a largely undisturbed area. What will be the impact of this drilling noise on greater sage grouse? Research has shown this species is highly noise sensitive, and OAR 660-023-0115 identifies land use that conflicts with sage-grouse habitat as including “noise levels of at least 70 dB for sustained periods of time.

Greater sage-grouse are also highly dependent on forb availability in the summertime when chicks hatch. Breeding impacts may be reduced by timing of this project, but what about rearing success? How will this project impact rearing habitat and summer perambulations? What about mule deer? Pronghorn? Bighorn sheep? Cougar? Columbia spotted frog? Rocky Mountain elk? Bobcat? Sandhill crane? Burrowing owls? Bobcat? Migratory bird species? Golden eagles? Rodents? Lizards? Snakes? How will bright lights associated with drilling affect insect populations in the area? What about bats?

Brad Shultz stated in a 2017 presentation that “Perennial herbaceous riparian areas adjacent to level benches with good forb/bunchgrass understory offer great potential for meeting breeding and brood rearing [needs]”. Does this describe portions of the site in question? Will these sites be impacted by the exploration? If so, where, how much area, and to what extent?

These impacts will, of course, be negative. Wildlife species need wild land, not industrialized land. Given this, why does this disturbance not count as undue and unnecessary degradation?

It appears when looking at ODFW’s Sage Grouse Development Siting Tool that ODFW has designated most of the protect area as “very high mitigation,” meaning this is very important habitat for Greater sage-grouse. Additionally, the entire site is part of ODFW’s 2023 “draft revised core habitat” for sage grouse.

Further underscoring the importance of this habitat for sage grouse, this area was designated as part of the Southeast Oregon and North-Central Nevada “Sagebrush focal area.” According to BLM documents, “After a multi-year collaboration process, the BLM and U.S. Forest Service amended 98 land use plans to provide for Greater Sage-Grouse conservation in 2015. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service relied on BLM’s and the U.S. Forest Service’s 2015 planning decisions, and State-level plans, to support its finding that the Greater Sage-Grouse did not warrant listing under the Endangered Species Act. The BLM and Forest Service plans included a recommendation that the Secretary of the Interior safeguard the most important habitat for the bird, Sagebrush Focal Areas (SFAs), by withdrawing them from the Mining Law of 1872, subject to valid existing rights. The SFAs cover about 10 million acres of Federal lands in Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming.”

Is this area subject to “valid existing rights” that predate the Sagebrush Focal Area plan and are thus grandfathered in? If not, why is this project continuing? Why has this area not yet been secured for federal mineral withdrawal?

And, doesn’t BLM’s “recommendation that the Secretary of the Interior safeguard the most important habitat for the bird, Sagebrush Focal Areas (SFAs), by withdrawing them from the Mining Law of 1872” mean that the agency has already determined that this habitat is too important to be destroyed?

Sage grouse populations continue to decline, despite collaborative efforts. The first objective cited in BLM’s 2015 fact sheet on the Greater Sage-Grouse Conservation Effort is to “Minimize new or additional surface disturbance.” The fact sheet notes that “The most effective way to conserve the sage-grouse is to protect existing, intact habitat.” So, why is this project being permitted in key sage grouse habitat? How can destruction of sage-grouse habitat be justified, given that the USGS has found that sage-grouse have declined by 80% since 1965 and nearly 40% since 2002, and that this decline has been particularly severe in the Great Basin? (https://www.usgs.gov/news/national-news-release/new-research-highlights-decline-greater-sage-grouse-american-west?qt-news_science_products=1)

It appears that Oregon’s sage-grouse conservation strategy is not working, based on the USGS data. Is this correct?

Is it correct to say that current sage grouse conservation measures amount to a “managed decline towards extinction”?

If mitigation is not halting species decline, then other measures should be taken. So, this project should be rejected.

Section 4.3 as a whole is very vague and needs significant clarification. Additionally, this study should include input from biologists with a range of opinions and perspectives to qualfy as workable science. This is a basic level of peer review, essential to the scientific method, that is missing completely from the analysis. For example, in addition to biologists hired by state and federal agencies and by HiTech, biologists working for environmental organizations should also be permitted. Scientists regularly make mistakes and are prone to biases and careerism, which is why a peer review process exists. How is this concern being mitigated? How do we know the science we are being presented with is complete and correct?

Section 4.5 states that there are no wetlands in the project area. Are beaver present? Were they historically? If so, has reintroduction been considered? This would create additional wetlands and widen stream channels. Beaver have been shown to improve fish habitat, cool water temperatures, reduce fire risk, store water for drought conditions, and increase biodiversity of other organisms. If beaver were to naturally return to the area, what would their impact be on this operation?

According to project maps in this application, significant portions of the project area are designated “lands with wilderness characteristics.” Additionally, the project area is surrounded to the northeast, north, northwest, west, and southwest by designated wilderness study areas. Connectivity corridors between these landscapes are incredibly important, especially as McDermitt Creek, Payne Creek, and others represent important summer water sources. With drilling happening the entire dry season, how will this project affect wildlife who reside in wilderness study areas and lands with wilderness characteristics?

What protections exist for designated “lands with wilderness characteristics”? Why is it permissible to conduct an industrial operation of this scale on those lands, if it destroys their wilderness character?

Where are the appendices? These are not included on the BLM website as of September 14th, 2023 (today) at 1:32pm Pacific Time. Without all the documents being included, how can the public be expected to understand and comment on the project? This is a significant oversight that is not explained on the BLM ePlanning website. Please explain where these documents are and why they were not shared with the public as part of this process. If they should have been shared, please share them. If that is the case, this comment period needs to be extended significantly and parties that have commented thus far must be informed of their availability. Also, new public meetings should be held in which these documents are available in print form for review by members of the public who do not have access to the internet (which is still somewhat common among Tribal communities and elderly people in this rural region).

This project will use significant amounts of diesel fuel and gasoline for generators, worker transport vehicles, heavy equipment (D-7 class bulldozers, 325C class track-mounted excavators, etc.), and drilling rigs. Estimates posit that for every 1000 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent that is emitted, one person will be killed due to global warming by 2100. What is the climate death impact of this project? The climate impacts of greenhouse gases released by burning these fuels, and due to disturbing soils, biological soil crusts, and vegetation across 99.2 acres should also be factored in. This impact assessment should also include materials used in this project, such as Portland cement, concrete, gravel, pipes, and other consumables, and amortized climate impact of producing heavy equipment, 4WD vehicles, mud tanks, water storage tanks, generators, ATVs, and other non-consumables as listed on page 14-15 of the exploration plan. Calculations should also account for traffic volume as cited on page 16. According to the applicant, vegetation may be shredded using a masticator – that’s carbon release.

How will vegetation shifts due to the project disturbance footprint change fire risks for the project area itself and for surrounding wilderness quality landscapes, due to e.g. cheatgrass proliferation?

Will welding and similar fire risk activities be allowed to continue during red flag warnings and periods of extreme fire danger?

Where is Appendix D?

Page 16 states that “Newly constructed roads will be recontoured to the original topography as practicable. Drill sites, sumps, and related disturbances will be reclaimed as soon as practicable after completion of drilling operations. Final reclamation of overland travel routes, sumps, and drill sites will consist of fully recontouring disturbances to their original grade, and re-seeding in the fall season immediately following completion of exploration activities.”

This sounds completely insufficient considering that low recruitment rates of sagebrush and other desert plants, the ease with which cheatgrass and other non-native species spread, and the impacts to biological soil crusts and soil seed banks.

What seeds will be used? Will they all be native seeds, or will some be non-native? Will the seed mix reflect exactly the plants found on the site prior to bulldozing? If not, what plants will be lost? How will the loss of certain plants effect wildlife species and people, especially indigenous people? How will the shifts in plant mixture as a result of disturbance and reseeding affect carbon storage and soil stability in the long term? Will there be followup to ensure germination and survival of seeded areas? What is the seeding is not successful?

Page 16 also states that “Natural barriers such as berms or rock may be utilized post reclamation to prevent future use of areas by the public.” Is this saying that areas will be made off limits to the public due to this project? Why is public land being privatized in this way?

Where is Appendix B? Where is Appendix E? Where is Appendix C?

In regards to section 6.10, what does a “qualitiative comparison” consist of, exactly? Given that pre-disturbance values of this landscape include but are not limited to ecological functions like water filtration, scenic values, biodiversity, and carbon sequestration, how will reclamation be determined to have been successful in regards to these functions?

This region is known to have significant amounts of mercury in the sediments. What are mercury levels inside the project area? How much mercury will be liberated by road building and drilling? Where will that mercury go? What impacts will it have on human beings, animals, plants, fungi, insects, and micro-organisms?

The same question applies to uranium, arsenic, and other hazardous subsgances that may be present in the geology.

What measures will be taken to prevent the spread of cheatgrass and other aggressive non-native species?

What consequences will HiTech incur if they are responsible for spreading cheatgrass or other aggressive invasives in the project area?

My conversations with elders from the Fort McDermitt Tribe, Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, Summit Lake Paiute Tribe, Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, and Burns Paiute Tribe have indicated that the northern McDermitt Caldera region is exceptionally significant to Native Americans across at least those five tribes and likely at least several others as well. Given the interconnections between regional tribes which were nomadic and interrelated prior to the establishment of tribal governments, this project should not be allowed to proceed without in-depth consultation with these five tribes. This consultation should also take into account the voices of tribal elders and knowledge holders, not just tribal governments.

If this will not take place, please explain why not, justify why these tribes are not being consulted prior to any disturbance on their traditional unceded territories, and explain the legal basis of this course of action.

The cultural significance of the Project Area is reinforced by the comments submitted by Nikki Hill, who references culturally important plants and archaeological data pointing towards more than 8,000 years of human inhabitation on the project site. As Hill states in her comment, “These initial findings require the time needed to properly survey those sites and to search for other indications within the greater project area; to request input from the tribe and local experts; and to seek out ethnographic documentation of local importance and memory of this area, which is held sacred by the Paiute people of McDermitt and other tribes.”

A letter from Klamath Tribal Member Ka’ila Farrell-Smith to Senator Jeff Merkeley and Governor Brown, available online here (https://www.kailafarrellsmith.com/letter-to-gov-brown), states clearly that the area proposed for the HiTech Minerals Exploration Project is “sacred to the Northern Paiute, Bannock, and Western Shoshone tribal peoples”.

Additionally:

  • Why is a Class III pedestrian survey considered adequate at this stage of EPO permitting?
  • Why is there no mention of culturally important sites in the EPO?
  • Why has there been no consultation with interested tribes?
  • How will interested tribes be determined? In your response, please incorporate how you will improve on the flawed approach to tribal consultation undertaken at Thacker Pass that led to multiple tribes filing lawsuits against the BLM.
  • Why has there been no consultation with traditional elders?
  • What qualifies BLM and HiTech to determine and mitigate adverse effects?
  • How will the BLM respond if different tribes hold different views on the cultural importance of the area?

The EPO states that “HiTech will be responsible for ensuring that employees, contractors, or any others associated with the Project do not damage, destroy, or vandalize archaeological or historical sites.” But what if the entire project itself is damaging, destroying, or vandalizing archeological or historical sites?

BLM is already aware, to some extent, of the cultural significance of the Disaster Peak area and McDermitt Caldera. For example, on Page 382 of Thierry “A Historical Ethnography of the Fort McDermitt Paiute,” an 1867 letter from Maj. Sherburne stationed at Camp McDermitt is quoted referring to “Disaster Peak, a place that has always been noted for the haunt of Indians”.

Further, BLM is also in possession of the document “Thacker Pass/Peehee mu’huh:

A Living Monument to Numu History and Culture,” which was submitted to the agency in early 2023 by the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and Summit Lake Paiute Tribe. This document describes how a survivor of the 1865 Thacker Pass massacre fled to the environs of Disaster Peak.

The region of Disaster Peak, McDermitt Creek, and the northern Caldera contains numerous historical sites of significance. These include the site where Col. McDermit was ambushed and killed, the site where a party of prospectors were attacked by Native Americans in March 1864, the site where party of prospectors were attacked by Native Americans in May 1865, and the sites where multiple skirmishes between settler-militia calling themselves the “Humboldt Rangers” and Native Americans took place sometime after the May 1865 attack and before June 4, 1864 (see “Origin of Place Names Nevada”1941; page 169 in Myron Angel’s “History of Nevada”; and Page 63 and 79 of Michno’s “The Deadliest Indian War in the West” for incomplete details of these last three events. Note that Michno’s details may be incorrect.), prehistoric village sites, areas of culturally important plant abundance that could indicate “gardening,” possible burial sites, travel routes, and the possibility of sacred sites relating to cultural activities in the area.

Note that Page 79 of Michno’s book indicates that multiple skirmishes and massacres in the vicinity of Disaster Peak “resulting in Captain Almond Well’s summer campaign” and contributed to the entire course of the Snake War, the deadliest Indian War west of the Mississippi. These are not minor events in American history and therefore extensive research, oral histories, and surveys must be conducted in this region before a permit to destroy and disturb the area should even be considered.

I must insist that this project complete a full EIS due to the fact that the cumulative disturbance being considered here might well compromise the cultural and ecological resources present on the site. There is an agency assumption here which is based on little to no evidence; the idea that cultural sites and biological integrity will not be unduly and unnecessarily compromised by the exploration. What evidence is there to support this thesis? What expertise is being applied to make this determination? Have the proper parties been consulted with? And, will the BLM complete a full EIS for this project? Why, or why not?

In regards to page 24: will revegetation mean that road and drill pad scars are invisible after reclamation is completed? Will plant assemblages and ages be comparable to non-disturbed areas? If not, this is not proper mitigation. Scenic values will be harmed by this project. Given that this area is surrounded by WSA’s and high ridges, this is a significant concern. How will this be dealt with?

In regards to cumulative impacts, I request that the impacts of this project be considered in ecological and cultural context at the regional, national, and global scales. The aforementioned article in Science, “Earth beyond six of nine planetary boundaries,” states that “Currently, anthropogenic perturbations of the global environment are primarily addressed as if they were separate issues, e.g., climate change, biodiversity loss, or pollution. This approach, however, ignores these perturbations’ nonlinear interactions and resulting aggregate effects on the overall state of Earth system. Planetary boundaries bring a scientific understanding of anthropogenic global environmental impacts into a framework that calls for considering the state of Earth system as a whole.”

Non-linear interactions and resulting aggregate effects from mining exploration must be considered when considering whether or not to permit this project given that the planetary boundaries which are already transgressed include:

  1. Biosphere integrity (which is relevant due to the habitat destruction, degradation, and the displacement and destruction of wildlife which would be caused by this project);
  2. Land system change (which is relevant due to the conversion of 99.2 acres of biodiverse sagebrush steppe habitat into roads and drilling pads);
  3. Freshwater change (which is relevant due to water use for this project);
  4. Novel entities (various chemicals which may be present in drilling fluids, heavy machinery, plastics used on-site, herbicide sprays, etc.).
  5. Climate change, especially CO2 concentration, is also relevant to this project due to fuel use and disruption of natural carbon sequestration processes.

Further, the cumulative effects of allowing exploration must be considered given that permitting exploration greatly increases the future risks of commercial-scale mining operations in the area. The public needs to be informed about the risks posed by “going down the path” towards mine development, not just the discrete technical impacts posed by bulldozing 99.2 acres of land at this time. Exploration is a “gateway drug,” not an independent process.

If you will not include discussion, scientific modeling, and independent assessments of non-linear interactions and aggregate effects related to permitting this project, why not? How do you justify not providing the public with a complete picture of the risks involved in this project?

The proximity of the HiTech EPO, coupled with its projected size and contemporary existence to the Thacker Pass lithium mine, added to the recent announcement that the McDermitt caldera may be the most lithium-rich in the world and the fact that addition mining corporations have staked claims and are considering mining elsewhere in the caldera, requires a cumulative effects analysis of the much larger region that is encompassed by the caldera.

With more and more lithium mining coming to this region, it’s highly conceivable that a gigantic, mosaiced “national sacrifice zone” is the inevitable result, atomizing habitat, and potentially trashing regional aquifers on an obscene scale. And with the huge undifferentiated rubble piles that will lay permanent in the wake of these mines, there will mineral runoff and pollution for eons. Not to mention the cumulative air quality effects from dust, sulfuric acid plants, and so on.

Because of the potentially significant impacts of these projects across the region and the potentially significant impacts at each mine site, NEPA requires either a programmatic or generic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS or GEIS) on the McDermitt Caldera lithium mining district, and site specific EIS’s at each site that applies. A PEIS is a tiered document. NEPA’s CEQ implementing regulations recognize that in addition to site-specific projects, the types of “major Federal action” subject to NEPA analysis requirements include “Adoption of formal plans, such as official documents prepared or approved by federal agencies which guide or prescribe alternative uses of federal resources, upon which future agency actions will be based . . . and adoption of programs, such as a group of concerted actions to implement a specific policy or plan; [and] systematic and connected agency decisions allocating agency resources to implement a specific statutory program or executive directive.” 40 C.F.R. § 1508.18(b)(2)-(3), which provides the conceptual underpinning for the use of PEIS’s. See also 10 C.F.R. § 1502.4(b)(“Environmental impact statements may be prepared, and are sometimes required, for broad Federal actions such as the adoption of new agency programs . . .Agencies shall prepare statements on broad actions so that they are relevant to policy and are timed to coincide with meaningful points in agency planning and decision making”).

A PEIS “provides an occasion for a more exhaustive consideration of effects and alternatives than would be practicable in a statement on an individual action. It ensures consideration of cumulative impacts that might be slighted in a case-by-case analysis. And it avoids duplicative reconsideration of basic policy questions.” CEQ Memorandum to Federal Agencies on Procedures for Environmental Impact Statements. 2 ELR 46162 (May 16, 1972).

The Supreme Court has recognized the need for national programmatic environmental analysis under NEPA where a program “is a coherent plan of national scope, and its adoption surely has significant environmental consequences.” Kleppe v. Sierra Club, 427 U.S. 390, 400 (1976). Programmatic direction can often help “determine the scope of future site-specific proposals.” Laub v. U.S. Dep’t of Interior, 342 F.3d 1080, 1089 (9th Cir. 2003). CEQ regulations define this practice as “tiering.” 40 C.F.R. § 1502.20 (“Whenever a broad environmental impact statement has been prepared . . . and a subsequent statement or environmental assessment is then prepared on an action included within the . . . program or policy (such as a site specific action) the subsequent statement or environmental assessment need only summarize the issues discussed in the broader statement and incorporate discussions from the broader statement by reference and shall concentrate on the issues specific to the subsequent action”).

Tiering allows an agency to meet its NEPA obligations in steps: First, the agency publishes a PEIS assessing the entire scope of a coordinated federal program. See Nevada v. Dep’t of Energy, 457 F.3d 78, 91 (D.C. Cir. 2006). The PEIS ensures that the agency assesses “the broad environmental consequences attendant upon a wide-ranging federal program.” Id. at 92. The agency later supplements that programmatic analysis with narrower EISs analyzing the incremental impacts of each specific action taken as part of a program. Id. at 91. A PEIS would examine the entire NRC policy initiative rather than performing a piecemeal analysis within the structure of a single agency action. Ass’n of Pub. Agency Customers v. Bonneville Power Administration, 126 F.3d 1158, 1184 (9th Cir.1997).

Agencies such as the NRC must “take a ‘hard look’ at their proposed actions’ environmental consequences in advance of deciding whether and how to proceed.” Sierra Club v. U.S. Army Corps of Eng’rs, 803 F.3d 31, 37 (D.C. Cir. 2015). There is zero evidence in the proposed rulemaking papers that any such inquiry has been performed.

Creating a programmatic EIS for lithium mining either at the level of the McDermitt Caldera, bioregionally for the Great Basin, or nationally for the western United States is the only appropriate way to assess the cumulative effects of these interrelated projects. Please implement a programmatic EIS process to analyze the cumulative effects of these projects. If you will not initiate a programmatic EIS, please explain why you will not be taking this action.

What if the company violates their word in this plan? What consequences will they face? At what point will their permits or license to do business be revoked? What monitoring will be conducted? How much impact on sage grouse is too much?

Corporations do not really exist. They are a legal fiction, an entity created for the purpose of profit, growth, and to limit liability. Businesses are made up of people, and those people are the ones making the decisions.

The great folk singer and revolutionary Utah Philips, who I had the honor of watching perform many times in my childhood, famously said: “The Earth is not dying, it’s being killed, and the people who are killing it have names and addresses.”

So, in honor of Utah Philips, I would like to go on the record about who is behind the ongoing and planned destruction of the McDermitt Caldera: These are some of the people behind this project.

Lindsay Dudfield

  • President and CEO of HiTech Minerals and Jindalee Resources
  • Level 2, 9 Havelock Street, West Perth WA, 6005, Australia
  • LinkedIn profile

Brett Marsh

  • Vice President of Exploration and Development at Jindalee Resources
  • Mr. Marsh has an extensive background with major mining corporations linked to serious environmental and human rights abuses worldwide.
  • Mesa, Arizona
  • LinkedIn Profile

Rebecca Ball

Darren Wates

  • Corporate Lawyer and Director at Jindalee Resources
  • Greater Perth area, Australia
  • LinkedIn Profile

Justin Mannolini

  • Chairman of the Board, Jindalee Resources
  • Greater Perth Area, Australia
  • LinkedIn Profile

Paul Brown

  • Director, Jindalee Resources

I would like to propose an alternative to the proposed project, which I have discussed with community members from Oregon and Nevada. We call it the Citizens Preferred Alternative, or CPA. The CPA is currently under development and we will submit it to the public and to relevant agencies including the BLM for discussion and debate in the near future. Under the CPA, this EPO would be rejected and the BLM would work with the public and the Department of the Interior to move the McDermitt Caldera toward a Federal Mineral Withdrawal to protect Sage-grouse focal areas and Lahontan Cutthroat Trout habitat. Further, much or all of the project area would be managed for wilderness characteristics.

Ultimately, these types of EA and EIS reports amount to a catalog of atrocities: “here is all the harms this project will cause, and we’ll allow it anyway.” This is just as bad as not cataloging the harms. The cataloging only matters if it actually stops projects and protects land. Therefore, I again urge the BLM to reject this exploration plan and protect this land. HiTech’s Plan of Operations would clearly cause “undue and unnecessary degradation” to public lands.

Please add me to any public notification contact lists related to the HiTech project and other lithium exploration or mining-related activities in the McDermitt Caldera and inform me when BLM has prepared a response to the questions and concerns raised in this comment. Thank you.

Sincerely,

Max Wilbert

September 15th, 2023