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The fate of America's largest lithium mine is in a federal judge's hands

Doranda Hinkey, a member of People of Red Mountain, in Humboldt County, Nev., on July 2, 2022. The planned Thacker Pass lithium mine in northern Nevada, the largest known lithium deposit in the United States, has drawn concerns and protests from environmental groups, Native American tribes and local ranchers.
Xinhua News Agency via Getty Images
Doranda Hinkey, a member of People of Red Mountain, in Humboldt County, Nev., on July 2, 2022. The planned Thacker Pass lithium mine in northern Nevada, the largest known lithium deposit in the United States, has drawn concerns and protests from environmental groups, Native American tribes and local ranchers.

BOISE, Idaho — The fate of the largest planned lithium mine in the United States is now in the hands of a federal judge who hopes to issue a ruling in a long-running legal battle in the next two months.

The proposed mine on Thacker Pass, a remote slice of federal land near Nevada's border with Oregon, is seen as key toward boosting domestic electric vehicle production. But a group of West Coast Native American tribes considers the land sacred and are suing to stop it.

The latest twist in a multiyear legal battle unfolded Thursday in a federal court in Reno, Nev., where lawyers for the tribes and a consortium of western environmental groups accused federal land managers of skirting environmental law and trying to green light the mine in the final days of the Trump administration.

So far, despite pressure from tribes, the Biden administration has not moved to stall the mine or commit to further environmental review.

Tribes want "Peehee Mu'huh" off limits

Before the hearing, dozens of activists marched more than a mile through Reno's snowy streets during the morning commute. They were led by a protester holding a traditional eagle staff. Some elders carried signs that read "Mining isn't Green" and "Keep Your Indigenous Rights."

As they neared the courthouse steps, they chanted, "Protect Peehee Mu'huh! Protect Peehee Mu'huh!"

Peehee Mu'huh is the Paiute word for the Thacker Pass area. Tribes including the Burns Paiute of Oregon, the Winnemucca Indian Colony and the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony consider the land sacred. Elders say it was the site of an ancient massacre.

For Reno-Sparks Indian Colony Chairman Arlan Melendez, the 1.6-mile march to the federal courthouse is symbolic: His people were once forced to march off their traditional land and onto reservations.

"A long time ago, we suffered the same trail of tears here in Nevada when our people were marched up to Yakima in Washington in the snow just like we see today," Melendez told the crowd.

To applause, he added that the proposed mine jeopardizes native peoples' way of life.

"We want to protect the Mother Earth. We want to protect our animals, our sacred sites," Melendez said.

EV industry is booming

During a three-hour court hearing before U.S. District Judge Miranda Du, attorneys for the company and the U.S. government maintained that all environmental laws were followed leading up to a decision by the Bureau of Land Management in January 2021 that gave the initial go ahead for the mine.

Laura Granier, an attorney for the Lithium Nevada mining company, said Congress also required the Bureau of Land Management to prioritize developing critical minerals needed for the transition to lower carbon energy.

"We are talking literally thousands of jobs, your honor, literally, tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in economic development, in tax revenues," Granier said.

The company has pledged to help the tribe that's actually closest to the mine, the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribes, with job training and infrastructure improvements like a new day care facility. That tribe has not joined the lawsuit and some tribal members in the past have told NPR they support it.

At Thursday's hearing, a government attorney also maintained that the BLM followed all environmental laws carefully before issuing an initial permit.
Thacker Pass is the the largest known lithium deposit in the U.S.

"It is a big deposit and it will be a significant contributor to the lithium supply for North America," said analyst Cameron Perks with the London-based firm, Benchmark Mineral Intelligence.

For Perks, the judge's decision will be a defining moment, setting the tone for whether lithium mining takes off in the U.S. or stays overseas, making the country more vulnerable to supply chain disruptions, he says.

"This is a real industrial revolution-scale issue where we really have a completely new industry and such a large one and they all depend on batteries which depend on lithium," Perks said.

Tribes say Biden can't have it both ways

This case puts the Biden administration in a bind. The country needs lithium to make its transportation system cleaner and reduce carbon emissions to combat climate change. But the president has also pledged to right historical wrongs in Indian Country. He installed Deb Haaland, the nation's first-ever indigenous Cabinet secretary, who oversees the agency permitting the Thacker Pass Mine.

The battle pitting mining and energy interests against tribes making sovereignty claims to ancestral land in Nevada is not unique. Tribes in Idaho and in Arizona are also fighting proposed copper and other mineral mines that federal leaders say are needed for the country's energy transition.

When President Biden took office in 2021, many tribal leaders considered it a new day after indications that long-standing treaties between their sovereign nations and the U.S. government would finally be honored.

On Thursday, Chairman Arlan Melendez of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony pledged to hold the government accountable.

"This is just the beginning you know," Melendez said. "We're going to be building larger coalitions not just with this issue on Thacker Pass, but the issues all across America where lands are being desecrated."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.