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Amargosa Valley lithium proposal sparks lawsuit

Fairbanks Spring at Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, with Ash Meadows Amargosa pupfish, Ash Meadows naucorid bug and spring loving centaury.
Patrick Donnelly
Center for Biological Diversity
Fairbanks Spring at Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, with Ash Meadows Amargosa pupfish, Ash Meadows naucorid bug and spring loving centaury.

By Jeniffer Solis/Nevada Current

The search for lithium has found its way to a treasured corner of the Nevada desert, resulting in a lawsuit by conservation groups who say further mining exploration could endanger a trove of species found nowhere else in the world.

Rover Metals, a Canadian mining exploration company, has proposed drilling up to 30 exploratory boreholes on public lands just north of the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, a critical wetland habitat that supports a dozen endangered and threatened species.

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The company says it has verified high-grade lithium surface samples at its 6,000-acre project site and plans to drill a minimum of ten exploratory boreholes.

Work on the exploratory project could begin within weeks or even days according to a schedule outlined recently by Rover Metals CEO Judson Culter while announcing financing for the company’s Let’s Go Lithium project in Nevada.

Map of Ash Meadows and the Let’s Go Lithium Project included in plaintaiffs’ complaint.
Map of Ash Meadows and the Let’s Go Lithium Project included in plaintaiffs’ complaint.

In the complaint filed Friday against the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Land Management, attorneys for the Center for Biological Diversity and the Amargosa Conservancy said federal land managers erred when they approved the exploratory mineral drilling near Ash Meadows without consulting other relevant agencies.

Attorneys for the conservation groups argue that federal land managers had an obligation under the Endangered Species Act to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the wildlife refuge, about the potential harm to endangered and threatened species before approving the proposed exploration activities.

Some of the proposed drill sites are within 2,000 feet of Fairbanks Spring, a critical habitat for the endangered Ash Meadows Amargosa pupfish.

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Map of Ash Meadows and the Let’s Go Lithium Project included in plaintaiffs’ complaint.

“Ash Meadows is an irreplaceable treasure and it’s utterly appalling that the Bureau of Land Management would let a Canadian mining company trash it with drilling,” said Patrick Donnelly, Great Basin director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “We’re doing everything we can to save Ash Meadows and stop the agency’s drill-anywhere mentality from destroying this beloved wildlife refuge along with the plants and animals that depend on it to survive.”

Residents of Beatty, an unincorporated town along the Amargosa River, have also expressed concern over the “potentially destructive, water-intensive and invasive activity so close to a declared refuge.”

In a letter from the Beatty Town Advisory Board sent to the BLM’s Pahrump Field Office in late June, town officials asked for a thorough environmental review of the exploratory project before any drilling is allowed.

Mason Voehl, the executive director of the Amargosa Conservancy, said community pushback on the lithium exploration project isn’t surprising, adding that communities and wildlife living in the Amargosa Desert are “dependent on the sustainable management of groundwater.”

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Residents living in nearby towns were not provided notice of the project or an opportunity to weigh in on “actions that will likely permanently and irreparably alter this unique and treasured landscape,” said attorneys for the conservation groups.

However, under federal law, most exploratory projects on public land are not required to submit a plan of operation, complete an environmental analysis, or solicit public comment.

“It is imperative that the communities of this region are provided with ample opportunities to meaningfully engage with the managing agencies at every step of the regulatory process,” Voehl said.

The Bureau of Land Management and Rover Metals could not be reached for comment by press time.

Amargosa River, the lifeline of the refuge, runs below ground for much of its 180-mile course, but in the stretches that reach the surface, the river supports endemic species that depend entirely on springs fed by the fragile groundwater aquifers.

At least twenty-five species of plants and animals are only found in the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, one of the highest concentrations of endemic species found in the United States, including the Devil’s Hole pupfish, according to the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service.

Opponents of the project say the proposed drilling operations will likely intersect with groundwater aquifers adjacent to the refuge, negatively impacting groundwater-dependent species.

The U.S Fish and Wildlife Service listed groundwater “reduction and manipulation” within central Amargosa Desert as amajor threat to the Ash Meadows Amargosa pupfish due to the level of connectivity between the aquifer fed springs in Ash Meadows.

Changes in groundwater flow and elevation could also affect the temperature and chemical content of springs in Ash Meadows, according to the service.

The Rover Metals lithium exploration project is just one of several large-scale development projects, from lithiumto solar, looming over the Nevada desert

“We are collectively witnessing what is inarguably the greatest transformation of public lands in our nation’s history, and western Nevada’s Amargosa Desert is at the epicenter of this change,” Voehl said. “Renewable energy development and lithium extraction are the twin priorities driving this transformation forward at an unprecedented scale and pace.”