Photo: Pictured here is the Foote mine, a large open-pit lithium mine in spodumene pegmatite, located on the south side of the town of Kings Mountain, North Carolina. The Foote mine project was initiated in 1938. This photograph was taken in 1983. 45 years later. The photograph shows the mine viewed from its western rim looking east toward the Pinnacle of Kings Mountain. For those curious as to what an open-pit lithium mine in Thacker Pass might look like after its 40 year run, this may give you an idea. Photograph by J. Wright Horton, Jr., U.S. Geological Survey.
A Letter and a Poem, from North Carolina to Thacker Pass: Lithium Mining is Mining All the Same
by Caroline Williford
On Thursday, February 11, 2021, a court decision overturned the Trump administration action that would have allowed mining, primarily for fossil fuel projects, on 10 million acres of previously protected land in western states. This decision sounds like a triumph, halting potential mining projects and preserving threatened habitat that would otherwise have been destroyed. This ruling sends the message that mining processes that harm the environment are unacceptable.
Unfortunately, this ruling is aimed only at fossil fuels.
What about the mining project at Thacker Pass, in Nevada, approved in the eleventh hour of Trump’s presidency, that still has the green light? The 5,700 acres of also previously protected land, now currently slated for mining, that would be destroyed for the extraction of lithium?
This lithium would be used in lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles and as storage for renewable energy. Because of this, the destruction of Thacker Pass is being described as “green.”
If you start to dig into what it means to construct an open-pit lithium mine on a piece of land, you will learn that there is nothing green about it. The Thacker Pass mine would burn some 11,300 gallons of diesel fuel per day, the carbon emissions from the site would ultimately exceed 150,000 tons per year, and producing one ton of lithium would require strip mining and processing of up to 500 tons of earth. Tons of sulfuric acid would be produced every day, in addition to other harsh chemicals that could leach into the groundwater. The project would require over 1.7 billion gallons of water annually from a local aquifer which is already over-allocated. The effect on native wildlife and vegetation would be catastrophic, including species that are rare and already en route to extinction.
This is the native, ancestral, sacred land of Paiute and Shoshone people. Such a project may provide job opportunities for some locals, but for all locals it would impact air and water quality for future generations. This mining project would continue for four decades. The project that begins at 5,700 acres could expand over time to 17,000 acres, which could triple all numbers mentioned here. Furthermore, the Thacker Pass lithium mine is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. On February 24, 2021, an executive order was put into place by the current administration that could potentially unleash a whole new era of lithium mining in the US.
My question is, why is it acceptable to mine for this purpose, for lithium, if the well-being of the earth is our actual concern? It is mining all the same. This is not actual change. It is more of the same. More destruction, more extraction and decimation, and for what purpose? Continuing a way of life that perpetuates a depletion of the earth’s resources and a number of species that also make this planet their home? Must we destroy the earth in order to save it? Where is the common sense in this equation? We are doing ourselves in. We are not thinking outside of the box. We are on one hand condemning mining efforts for fossil fuels due to the negative impact on the environment, and on the other hand not only advocating mining for lithium, but championing it, pushing it forward to the front of the room under the name of clean and green, all the while hiding its own equally catastrophic impacts on the environment in the periphery.
It’s capitalism and consumerism bullying ahead with an agenda that prioritizes profit over the critical thinking and sound decision making that could actually set us on a path to take care of the earth, rather than destroy it, as we attempt to save it.
Simply said: it’s greenwashing.
As someone who has been a part of the environmental movement for the majority of my life, I hate having to form that word upon my tongue, and to acknowledge such a divide among those of us who would otherwise be unified in a purpose to preserve the well-being of the earth. And yet, that word is upon my tongue, and it’s bitter. Yes, I can agree to forward-thinking actions to protect our environment, but not to those that require further destruction. We are already so far behind. We are already in the midst of a literal sixth mass extinction event on the planet, and this time it is driven by us, human beings. As one of those human beings, I want to do things differently this time. I am not going to jump on the bandwagon of lesser evils. I am not going to believe the claim that an action is green or clean, unless I can dig all the way to the depths of it and find that it fully honors life just as it is at this moment and it requires no further assault in order for us to move forward. I ask that we do better this time. Lithium mining is not the answer. And, I am here making this statement: I do not support lithium mining, anywhere. I do not support lithium mining at Thacker Pass. I want to protect Thacker Pass.
I have been following the efforts of Protect Thacker Pass from North Carolina over the last month, and the more I’ve learned about the mining project, the more appalled I’ve become. I had no idea what lithium mining entailed a few months ago. I’ve entered into one long conversation after another, sharing what I’m learning with friends, and with each conversation I’ve observed yet another person, like myself, waking as if from a deep slumber, shaking their head, astonished, and asking endless questions. How did we not know about lithium mining? How did we get so disconnected from the goings-on in the world that we no longer see what is actually happening around us, or ask the critical questions of how things are actually made? Such as, what does it take to make a lithium battery? And why do some people care while others do not? I can’t answer these questions for anyone else and so I am looking at myself. Have I been asleep? Is it too late? How did I get to a place of such complacency and blind trust, that I stopped actively looking at the world around me, really looking? Looking in the way that matters. And, what can I do about it, now? When I can’t find answers any other way, I sit down and write. What follows is my attempt at answering these questions in my relationship to Thacker Pass. What I ultimately discovered is this: now is the time for action, and it’s time to go to Thacker Pass.
Now is the Time
It seems to me that there are many ways of looking at the world.
There is the way of looking when we are caught
in our stories
of yesterday’s confoundments
of tomorrow’s yearnings
to the extent that we simply cannot see
one inch beyond
where our glazed over eyes might meet the world.
And there is the way of looking
when the rug has suddenly been pulled out ruthlessly, beneath us
and we are searching
eyes keen as eagles
for the thing that has just been lost.
How could we not have seen this coming?
Everything is seen painfully anew.
What is now missing like a holy gap,
a tear in the great fabric of the world.
The loss pounds our gut with regret.
And there is the way of looking
that is now
without the stories clouding view.
The moment before the thing is lost.
The one that is in fact here, everyday upon waking
if we take up its humble, quiet call.
It requires us to participate.
To shelve the stories.
To get down on our knees and see the world before us.
Really see it.
Every fine tuned rake of the sand, marked
by the talons, hooves, and claws that daily grace this place.
And perhaps the call is not quiet at all.
But a continuous, piercing cry.
The kind of which we as humans may think we cannot hear, may claim
we cannot hear, like other animals.
But we can. If we just lean in. Closer.
This is the time before.
The imminent hour.
When the stories are rising up,
teeming and swelling and clamoring
to be heard before it’s too late.
This is the time of choice.
When we can choose something different than before.
Trading one heartless destructive act for another is not the way.
Destroying in order to save.
Not the way.
The lesser of two evils.
Not the way.
Is this really the only choice we have to make?
We limit ourselves.
Perhaps we are so smothered by the din of
our culture’s mighty noise
that it’s hard to hear. It’s hard to see.
But we owe it to the earth to which we belong
to take off the blinders, to quiet a moment, and listen
to the urgent message being issued forth: please just stop.
For any reason: coal, oil, lithium.
Not for fossil fuels, not for supposed clean energy.
This is not clean energy.
Drilling into the earth to break, leach and deplete
the elements that make up our very foundation.
Displacing the native inhabitants of a place,
greater sage-grouse already in their ongoing dance with extinction,
pygmy rabbits, golden eagles, pronghorn antelope,
from the burrows in the ground to the nests arching up in the sky.
Poisoning the water as far as 150 miles downstream.
Depleting the water supply of the driest known state in our entire country.
Leaving the land scarred, barren, empty, parched, destroyed.
I want to live this way, and this way only:
Stirred from sleep each waking day
with an ear to the world’s whisperings,
loyal to its call to hear and think critically
outside of the green washings of capitalism and industry
where the solutions are tinged with blood, death and loss.
I want to walk my feet out the door and help trace lines around
that which is mapped for destruction
which we have somehow forgotten is also our very destruction,
our death, our loss.
I don’t ever want to forget that we are one and the same.
We, and this earth beneath our feet.
The only difference between us, the rivers, the mountains,
and the other creatures of this vast place
is the voice with which we speak.
The cadence, the language.
We as humans hold a lot of power, too much, with what we choose to say, and when.
Our voices are crucial.
So I’m going to offer mine up, and say right here:
There IS another way.