by Christopher Ketcham, for TruthDig


When I camped with Wilbert in November 2021, we walked together the old growth sagebrush and high desert bunchgrasses. The nights were cool, the days balmy, the place filled with a feeling of peaceful majesty. Wilbert was 33 at the time, but he looked much younger. He was a hunter of deer, and he had the small wiry frame and sharp clear eyes of someone who spends a lot of time on foot in the rough terrain of the backcountry. We climbed to a ridge above Thacker Pass at the southern rim of a range of rolling sagebrush uplands called the Montana Mountains.  The ridge afforded a sweeping view of immensity. No machines stirred for miles around. The one paved road that crossed the valley might as well have been a footpath.

Wilbert shared with me a nightmare vision of the mine’s operations as proposed in its scoping documents. Miles and miles of new roads would fragment the valley. Trucks would move across the new roads in numbers the valley had never seen. The open pit for the digging out of the lithium would be as deep as a football field and more than two miles wide. There would be a liquid molten sulfur plant to boil down the lithium, fed by scores of trucks every day carrying the molten material from distant rail depots, along with soda ash and quicklime. The processing plants would release sulfur compounds and other pollutants into the air.  The mine as a whole would burn through 11,000 gallons of diesel per day, with more than 200 tractor trailer loads entering and leaving every 24 hours. It would blight the night sky with glaring lights and shatter the silence of the desert with grinding noise. In the driest state in the country it would draw from local aquifers some 4 million gallons of water a day, via a new pipeline stretching scores of miles. (The average Nevada resident uses 134 gallons a day.) There was a chance, too, the mine would permanently poison groundwater in the valley with radioactive compounds.

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Photo “The windswept Sagebrush Sea that engulfs Thacker Pass” by Christopher Ketcham