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Past, Future Collide In Dispute Over Northern Nevada Lithium Mine

A lithium mine planned for Humboldt County could provide raw materials for the lithium-ion batteries produced by Tesla at the Gigafactory outside Reno.
Associated Press

A lithium mine planned for Humboldt County could provide raw materials for the lithium-ion batteries produced by Tesla at the Gigafactory outside Reno.

Supporters of a planned lithium mine in remote far-north Nevada say it will create jobs and help the transition to a clean energy future, with the metal serving as a vital component in EV and other batteries.

Opponents respond that the mine near Thacker Pass, close to the Oregon border, poses a threat to the environment and would defile land sacred to Native Americans.

The dispute will be on the docket Friday in federal court in Reno, where a judge will hear a request by tribal opponents of the project for a temporary injunction to halt work there.

“If the judge does decide to approve our injunction, that would mean that the Bureau of Land Management would have to re-consult with many, many tribes, taking at least one or two years,” said project opponent Daranda Hinkey, a member of the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone tribes who is against the mine. “So it's just a temporary delay, but it's not going to stop the mine completely.”

She said a minority of tribal members support the project because of the jobs it will bring, but the majority oppose the project because of environmental concerns and that it will be built on land considered sacred.

Lithium is a critical part of plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, because it’s used for the batteries in electric vehicles, including at Tesla’s Gigafactory outside of Reno.

“We simply don't believe that it is right to destroy this land for what amounts to a luxury good, because most people on the planet don't have cars today,” said project opponent Max Wilbert, who set up a protest camp at the site of the mine. “And we don't need cars to survive, or is it right to poison the land? Poison the water and destroy the land for that luxury?”

A UNR political science professor who favors the mine says the project could play an important role in national security by onshoring access to a strategic resource.

“We are totally dependent on China to process the lithium that's produced in Australia and Chile,” said John Scire, who has taught U.S. foreign policy and energy policy at UNR for nearly two decades. “So China has control of our lithium supply, and they could just turn it off tomorrow.”

Humboldt County Manager Dave Mendiola said the $1.2 billion mine, which would require 1,000 people to build and 200 to run, could change the complexion of the sprawling, sparsely populated county. It runs north from the county seat of Winnemucca and includes hamlets that dot the rural highways along and north of Interstate 80.

“There's no question that something like this mine will change those communities,” Mendiola said. “If we work through it early on, and we plan to,  these don't have to be negative impacts. 

Mendiola said he has faith in environmental regulators to make sure the project doesn’t pollute groundwater.

I'm not here in any capacity as a professional or expert, but what I can tell you is that the Nevada Department of Environmental Protection is an outstanding group. I just trust them wholeheartedly because I know how they treat us for our small water system in McDermott," he said. "They've got the rules and regulations and the personnel in place."

Daranda Hinkey, member, Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribes; Edward Bartell, rancher, mine opponent; Max Wilbert, co-founder, Protect Thacker Pass; John Scire, adjunct professor of political science, UNR; Illyssa Fogel, owner, Diamond A Motel in McDermitt; Dave Mendiola, manager, Humboldt County

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Bert is a reporter and producer based in Reno, where he covers the state legislature and stories that resonate across Nevada. He began his career in journalism after studying abroad during the summer of 2011 in Egypt, during the Arab Spring. Before he joined Nevada Public Radio and Capital Public Radio, Bert was a contributor at KQED and the Sacramento News & Review. He was also a photographer, video editor and digital producer at the East Bay Express.