Dirty Green: Thacker Pass and the battle for the future of electric cars
The sky was blue and I was driving a rural stretch of tarmac called Kings River Road, searching for the site of perhaps the nation’s next big environmental showdown.
A mammoth open-pit mine is slated to be carved out of an arid sweep of land at a place called Thacker Pass, that splits northern Nevada’s Montana and Double H Mountain ranges, just south of the Oregon border.
This time, Wall Street isn’t looking to extract gold or silver but another kind of mineral that complicates the battle lines and muddies the political talking points.
The element is a vital component of the batteries that power electric cars. And there’s not enough of it to meet demand, forcing the auto industry to import lithium from countries like China.
Now the federal government has given a Canadian-owned company the rights to lease federal land and blow up another piece of the American West on its grail toward profits.
Call it the little-known underbelly of the battle to make America Green.
Today, there’s just one working lithium mine in the entire U.S. and, coincidentally, it’s also in Nevada — the Silver Peak mine outside the town of Goldfield, 330 miles to the south. If built, the so-called Thacker Pass mine would be the second.
And despite its role in furthering any kind of green future, lithium mining is a dirty business, one that threatens water resources for drinking and farming and destroys natural habitats for often-endangered animals.
Open-pit mines are unsightly chasms dynamited deep into the earth, swallowing entire mountains in their path. This one will threaten sage grouse habitat, old growth sagebrush, golden eagle nests, cutthroat trout, bighorn sheep, and pygmy rabbits.
And then there are the people living in the shadow of the beast.
As you might guess, there’s fierce opposition to the project — from farmers, ranchers, environmentalists and many members of the Fort McDermitt Paiute-Shoshone tribe, whose reservation lies 50 miles from the lithium dig-site, people who have already bore the brunt of mining’s legacy.
Past mines in the area have left behind dangerous traces of arsenic and other dangerous chemicals in the groundwater. So people on the reservation and the nearby town of McDermitt drink bottled water shipped in from the outside.
The proposed mine will also sully what locals Native Americans consider sacred land. Mining archeologists have already found numerous ancient burial sites there. But — get this — they’re not bound by law to tell the tribe precisely where they are.
Years ago, a U.S. Department of Energy official told me of an insider’s saying bureaucrats have over public opposition to sprawling controversial projects like this one and the big daddy of them all — the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository.
It’s not just the NIMBY (Not in My Backyard) crowd but the fiercer people from NOPE.
Not on Planet Earth.
In mid-January, the day the Bureau of Land Management announced their approval of the Thacker Pass Lithium Mine, a pair of environmentalists set up a makeshift camp to occupy the site and do what’s necessary to challenge the surveyors and bulldozers.
I wanted to meet both of them.
But I was lost.
As I drove through Thacker Pass, I saw no environmentalists, no banners, no nothing.
All I could see were cows, standing in my way, making eye-contact, acting as though they owned the road which, for now, they kind of do.
Icalled a friend who had been there before. He quickly got me un-lost.
There between road-mile markers 20 and 21 was a small post adorned with colored scarves. I drove up a dirt road, past more lounging cows, and finally spotted the camp on on a vast mountain foothill.
But with tensions brewing, I didn’t know how welcome a stranger would be. I could be a mining scout, or anybody. I drove slowly, until I saw him there, waving his hand.
Max Wilbert. He wore a western hat. He smiled as I drove up.
Max is a Seattle-born organizer, writer and wilderness guide who has been involved with grassroots political work for two decades.
Since January 15, the day the Bureau of Land Management issued its so-called Record of Decision approving the Thacker Pass mine, Max and fellow activist Will Faulk have set up a modern-day version of a prospector’s camp, staking a political claim to this land, hoping their presence will help rally opposition — both local and national.
So far, it has worked. There are several lawsuits pending against the project; by a local rancher and environmentalists, as well as pressure from the tribe.
For months, taking turns on this stakeout of the land, Max and Will have slept in a family-sized tent, fashioned makeshift facilities like and open-air kitchen, a fire pit surrounded by rudimentary chairs, and a solar-power screen to power cellular service.
It’s hard-living. At night, the temperatures drop below freezing and the wind always blows, often to more than 40 miles an hour.
Max has fielded calls from reporters across the nation, telling one from the New York Times that the project — which could last 50 to 100 years — will potentially contaminate ground water in a region where mining operations have long come, done their damage, and then pulled up stakes when the resources are gone.
“Blowing up a mountain isn’t green,” Max told the New York Times, “no matter how much marketing spin people put on it.”
Two days later, I drove out a narrow road to the offices of the Fort McDermitt Pauite-Shoshone tribe, passing horses who loitered on the tarmac.
I met chairwoman Maxine Redstar, who said that, even though the mine site isn’t on the reservation, those are nonetheless traditional lands where many of the tribe’s oral histories were made.
She said tribal officials have been in consultation with the BLM over how to lessen the project’s impact on local people.
She doesn’t hold out much hope. It’s not like U.S. government officials have kept their word in the past. How can David stand up to Goliath? Even this time, there has too little dialogue of whats to come.
“In the end, they’re gonna do what they want,” she said. “They’ll just take it.”
Some tribal residents support the mine, hoping it will bring jobs. But others are angry.
In March, when BLM officials came to the reservation for a meeting with tribal officials, they were met by a handful of protestors.
“Tell me, what water am I going to drink for 300 years?” one yelled at officials, according to the New York Times. “Anybody, answer my question. After you contaminate my water, what I am going to drink for 300 years? You are lying!”
For their own safety, Redstar said, the BLM people were given a tribal escort when they left the reservation.
As an environmentalist, Max Wilbert has been down this road before.
Big business sweeping in and taking what it wants without informed indigenous consent or even proper public discourse among the local residents who will affected by their explosions and earth-moving equipment.
Max heard about Thacker Pass while he was researching a book on the failings of his own brethren, called Bright Green Lies: How the Environmental Movement Lost its Way and What We can Do About It.
He came to Thacker Pass for a few days of camping, to get the lay of the land, reveling in the natural quiet and starry skies.
One night, he had a dream that he lead a protest of hundreds or people.
When he woke up, he had a plan.
The dream has since become reality.
Scores of ranchers and tribal residents in the region have come to Thacker Pass to demonstrate their opposition to the mine by praying and dancing. Redstar came as well. Others have bought food for the protestors.
“I’m still working in a casserole I got last week,” Max said.
There are more lithium mines being mapped out across the U.S. And that scares environmentalists like Max and Will.
Right now, neither knows what will happen at Thacker Pass once the lawsuits are settled. Nobody wants violence, but they do want people to join them at the site, stand in unison, and say no.
Max sweeps his hand to show how much land will be consumed by the mine.
On an otherwise crystal-clear day, if you looked closely, you could see what looked like storm clouds brewing on the far horizon.
John M. Glionna is a writer and freelance journalist based in Sin City, Nevada. His website is www.johnglionna.com.