Dispatches from Thacker Pass: Harms of the Thacker Pass Lithium Project

After reading Alexi Zawadzki’s April 28th article, “Lithium Nevada Corp’s CEO explains the benefits of the Thacker Pass Lithium Project,” I look out across the landscape of Thacker Pass and feel the wind blow across my skin. 

My goal in this essay is to debunk Zawadzki’s claims. The facts matter, and I will attend to them here. But this is not a clash of parts per million or economic output. Fundamentally, this is a clash of values and of worldviews.

My values start here, with the land, the wind, and the last of winter’s snow melting on the mountains above Thacker Pass, feeding the creeks, quenching the thirst of land and people. My values begin with the children walking down from their hike on the mountainside, carrying fragments of an eggshell and wearing wide smiles. 

The wind carries the sweet smell of sagebrush from the gently swaying arms of the 100-year-old plants rolling out around me, and carries the song of a meadowlark to my ears. 

Wildflowers — periwinkle Lupine, scarlet Indian Paintbrush, white Mountain Phlox and slender pink Cold-desert Phlox wending up through sagebrush, pure yellow Arrowleaf Balsamroot, stunning bi-colored Sagebrush Violets, and more who I don’t know — wave in the breeze, opening their faces towards the sunlight bathing Thacker Pass. The low clouds above the mountains glow amber and ochre. A golden eagle circles overhead.

The land is alive here. Insects fly back and forth. Native bumblebees as large as my thumb buzz from flower to flower. A hummingbird investigates flashes of red rope stringing up tarps. A jackrabbit’s ear twitches in the rabbitbrush, and the tail of a lizard vanishes under a thicket of sagebrush. A pygmy rabbit, here where the company claims there are none, darts across the edge of camp.

This beauty and vitality is impossible to quantify. 

The protest camp at Thacker Pass began partly because critical analysis and detailed research I conducted while writing my book Bright Green Lies: How The Environmental Movement Lost Its Way and What We Can Do About It showed that lithium mining, electric vehicles, and much of the so-called “green economy” is a farce. That same research made me aware of the Thacker Pass mine proposal — of the threat to this place.

But the reason I am here, camped on the side of this mountain pass, four months into our occupation of this site, is because of a dream I wrote about in another article. The spirits are alive at Thacker Pass. People have visions here. For those who are willing to open up, this place can begin to heal what is broken inside you. Call this power God, The Creator, the Great Mystery, spirits of the land and ancestors, some form of physics not yet understood by science, or whatever you like. Come here with an open heart, and you will experience it.

This is why my worldview and values clash with Alexi Zawadzki, Timothy Crowley, Lithium Nevada and their parent company Lithium Americas. They see this mountainside as a pile of dead rock that can be turned into money. I see this as a sacred place where rain falls on waxy, feathery sagebrush ancients and sage-grouse dance their ancient rituals, where Paiute and Shoshone ancestors are buried beneath the soil, where we must tread lightly because we walk on the face of our mother, the planet that birthed us.

Nonetheless, facts matter, and so it’s important to rebut some of Zawadzki’s claims.

He writes, for example, that lithium mining will “support the U.S. target to reduce greenhouse gas pollution by 50 to 52 percent by 2030,” but analysis from the Center For Interdisciplinary Environmental Justice says that electrification of cars will only reduce national emissions by 6 percent. Since transportation accounts for 29 percent of U.S. Greenhouse Gas emissions, that 6% reduction only accounts for a 20 percent reduction in overall transportation emissions. Eighty percent remains. 

Manufacturing an electric car and its battery releases around 9 tons of CO2 emissions. On top of this, most electricity generation (roughly 64 percent) that powers electric vehicles still comes from gas, oil, and coal. Most of the rest comes from nuclear power and hydropower, which have their own associated atrocities (choked rivers, plummeting salmon populations, and radioactive waste that will last billions of years) as well as greenhouse gas emissions. Solar and wind energy make up an increasing, but still small, proportion of the power supply, and Nevada is paying the price: solar sprawl is bulldozing through critical Mojave desert tortoise habitat, and wind turbines are knocking birds and bats from the sky en masse.

All this is why the CEO of Toyota, the largest car company in the world, recently said that “The more EVs [Electric Vehicles] we build, the worse carbon dioxide gets.”

Extractive industries like mining are responsible for half the world’s carbon emissions and more than 80% of species extinctions. What sort of solution is mining, when to stop global warming requires “near-zero” emissions, and when we’re living through the 6th great mass extinction event

In his April 28th article, Zawadzki uses the typical mining company playbook. He speaks of “best available technologies” (envision massive diesel-powered diggers and a sulfuric acid plant) and “minimiz[ing] water needs” (to a mere ~4 million gallons a day). 

He writes of jobs and paying taxes (despite the abysmally low tax rate on mining companies in Nevada). 

He talks about “exceeding all the relevant state and federal safety and environmental laws” (despite the Environmental Impact Study showing the mine would likely exceed Nevada state limits for water pollutions, and that those limits are themselves inadequate. 

Rachel Carson, the founder of the modern environmental movement, wrote in 1962 that “The most alarming of all man’s assaults upon the environment is the contamination of air, earth, rivers, and sea with dangerous and even lethal materials. This pollution is for the most part irrecoverable; the chain of evil it initiates not only in the world that must support life but in the living tissues is for the most part irreversible.” The situation is even worse today.

Zawadzki says that they “will always strive to earn people’s trust and support through our actions as a responsible operator and charitable member of the community.” 

This is quite literally a script followed by mining companies facing public opposition all over the world.

He writes that “clearly, the development of Thacker Pass is in the Nation’s interest.” What Nation, Alexi? The Golden Eagle Nation? The Fort McDermitt Paiute-Shoshone Nation? The rural communities of Orovada and King’s River, who are facing the full brunt of the air and water pollution associated with this project? 

It’s certainly in the interest of Zawadzki and his ilk, who stand to make billions by blowing up this land, converting living ecosystems into dead commodities, and leaving behind a legacy of poisoned water and air while they take their money and run.

In 1966, one of the great writers in American history, James Baldwin, wrote that “I can’t believe what you say, because I see what you do.” Those words echo in my head as I read Zawadzki’s statements. Trust between these local communities and the mining company is broken. They feel as if the system has failed them, as though the Environmental Impact Statement process bypassed their concerns; as though state agencies—their employees—seem to be ignoring their concerns. My trust was non-existent from the beginning, because I know how extractive industries operate.

Zawadzki has the nerve to talk of avoiding the worst consequences of the climate crisis, when:

  1. This mine would directly release the equivalent of 152,713 tons of carbon dioxide each year, equivalent to the greenhouse gas emissions of a small city,
  2. The contractor to build the mine is The North American Coal Corporation, and
  3. The main chemical input for lithium processing is sulfur sourced from oil refineries—possibly from refining sulfur-rich tar sands crude. 

I agree with Zawadzki that we need to avoid the worst consequences of the climate crisis. Unfortunately, this project will not contribute to that goal. We will not save the planet by blowing up places like Thacker Pass, burning vast quantities of diesel fuel, and producing consumer products.

To save the planet, we have to stop destroying. That means halting projects like Thacker Pass.

It is evening now, the warmest night I’ve yet experienced here. Everyone else at camp went to bed early. It is quiet as the sky fades from crimson sunset to pale blue dusk. The buzzing insects flit from bush to bush. 

As I sit, writing, a jackrabbit emerges from the sage shrub and hops slowly into the center of camp. He rises on his back legs and looks at me, straight in the eye, 10 feet away. “It is right to defend this place,” he says. I am here for him, and for this land of his ancestors and his children. He turns, hops slowly back to the shrubs, and disappears in a flash of black-tipped ears and silvery haunches.

James Baldwin also wrote that “The victim who is able to articulate the situation of the victim has ceased to be a victim; he or she has become a threat.” 

We — the people who understand the costs of this mine, and of industrial devastation all over the world — have ceased to be victims.

Image: Male Greater sage-grouse, watercolor by anonymous supporter.

Published May 17, 2021 in the Sierra Nevada Ally.