Reno-Sparks Indian Colony Media Phone: Bethany Sam

RSIC Attorney Phone: Will Falk, Esq.

Protect Thacker Pass Media Phone: Max Wilbert

New Legal Claims Filed Against Thacker Pass Lithium Mine

OROVADA, NV — The Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and a Northern Paiute group called Atsa Koodakuh wyh Nuwu (“People of Red Mountain”) have presented a federal court with new complaints in their lawsuit against the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) over Lithium Nevada Corporation’s planned Thacker Pass lithium mine in northern Nevada.

Court filings Monday allege that BLM violated five federal laws in permitting the mine, including the National Historic Preservation Act, the Archeological Resources Protection Act, the Administrative Procedure Act, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act.

“New documents we’ve unearthed in the lawsuit and via the Freedom of Information Act show many more violations of federal law than were originally evident,” says attorney Will Falk, who is part of the team of lawyers representing Reno-Sparks Indian Colony. “Among dozens of other outrageous violations, it is now clear that the BLM conducted no consultation with native tribes when permitting the Thacker Pass mine. None whatsoever.”

Falk and the other attorneys also allege the BLM lied to the Nevada State Historic Preservation Office, regional tribes, and the public about consultation; failed to properly identify Native Tribes who hold Thacker Pass to be important; failed to identify well-documented culturally significant sites; violated the 2014 BLM-State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO) State Protocol Agreement governing historic sites; and flagrantly disregarded BLM’s internal rules regarding consultation with tribes.

BLM has maintained that they had no prior knowledge of the spiritual and historical significance of Thacker Pass. But according to the filing, former Fort McDermitt Tribal Chairman Dale Barr told the BLM in March 2009 that the area was historically significant due to oral histories of a massacre.

“For months, BLM has been pretending they had no idea that Thacker Pass was culturally significant,” says Falk. “These new documents show this is a blatant lie. BLM has no excuse for not knowing that Thacker Pass is incredibly important from a religious and a historical perspective, and yet they are still planning an illegal for-profit archeological dig.”

The new filing also criticizes BLM’s rushed permitting of the mine and shows how the agency disregarded guidelines from the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, which urged federal agencies to halt or take extra time consulting with native tribes during the COVID pandemic, since many reservations were locked down with offices closed. Instead, the BLM expedited the permitting, shortening a 3-4 year process to less than 12 months. Their letters to regional tribes were sent to offices that were closed, and only after the BLM had issued its Record of Decision did most regional tribes become aware of the project.

Tribal opposition to the Thacker Pass lithium mine

It has recently come to light that the Summit Lake Paiute Tribe and Winnemucca Indian Colony have expressed strong opposition to the disturbance of sacred and culturally important sites at Thacker Pass in letters sent to the BLM after the permit was issued. These tribes now join the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, Burns Paiute Tribe, Duck Valley Shoshone-Paiute Tribe, and Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, as well as two major tribal organizations (the Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada and the National Congress of American Indians), in expressing serious concerns about the Thacker Pass mine. The BLM has informed tribes that “[The Thacker Pass mine] could result in the partial or complete destruction of 56 of the 57 historic properties [in the area], including all 55 [Native American obsidian toolmaking and habitation sites].

“You must understand that the 55 historic properties are Native American sites and these historic properties were analyzed without any comments by tribes that attach cultural significance to Thacker Pass,” says Arlan Melendez, Chairman of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony. “These sites hold the history, culture and ancestors of the Great Basin Tribes.”

The Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and other native opponents of the mine have also criticized the fact that site-surveys and archeological work at Thacker Pass has been done without consultation or participation from tribes. Mine opponents allege that BLM’s count of 57 sacred and/or culturally important sites in Thacker Pass is likely a serious underestimate, given that it doesn’t include the most significant known event to take place in Thacker Pass. BLM’s Record of Decision contains no references to a September 12, 1865 attack in which U.S. Cavalry massacred between 31 and 70 Paiute men, women, elders, and children, despite government records documenting the event. The massacre began on the eastern edge of the Thacker Pass mine project boundary, and Cavalrymen chased fleeing Paiutes for many miles over several hours. Firsthand accounts from survivors show that at least some Paiute survivors fled west and north, further into the project area.

The massacre, part of the Snake War, was a seminal event in the establishment of the Fort McDermitt Paiute-Shoshone Tribe. Michon R. Eben, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer at the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, believes that this event alone qualifies Thacker Pass for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

BLM has also claimed they were unaware of a separate massacre of Paiutes that took place further west in Thacker Pass. That incident, which is only documented in oral history, was a conflict between two tribes. This was the incident Dale Barr was referring to in his 2009 conversation with the BLM.

Continued unethical behavior from the BLM

 As the legal battle continues, mine opponents believe the BLM has continued to act unethically. For more than a month, the BLM has ignored permit requests for a Native American ceremonial camp on the site of the proposed Thacker Pass lithium mine, which is known as Peehee Mu’huh in the Paiute language. On October 8th, eighteen Native American elders, including disabled individuals and military veterans from three regional Tribes, asked BLM to permit bathroom and kitchen tent “structures which are essential to our participation in religious activities at Peehee Mu’huh, the sacred resting place of our ancestors.” BLM has not responded to this letter.

 Meanwhile, the BLM continues to pursue Falk and his friend Max Wilbert, who co-founded the original Protect Thacker Pass land defense camp in January 2021, for nearly $50,000 in trespassing fines. On November 26th, the BLM denied the first appeal filed by Falk and Wilbert, but the fight is not over yet.

Wilbert, who is co-author of a book examining the harms of the renewable energy and electric vehicle transition, says that the Thacker Pass project is not environmentally friendly. “It’s greenwashing, and grassroots environmentalists, native communities, and ranchers are standing against this mine,” Wilbert says. “Now Will and I, who took the risk of starting the protest camp, are being persecuted for camping on land which the BLM has slated for total destruction. But we’re not giving up — we’ll fight this mine until the end.”

“As tribal leaders, it’s our responsibility to protect and honor our sacred places. Throughout US history, tribes have always been set up to lose in the US legal system against BLM. And now that we have lawyers and allies to advocate for us, BLM is trying to target them with nonsensical fines,” Chairman Arlan Melendez stated. “This Lithium Mine stands in the way of our roots and it’s violating the religious freedoms of our elders, our people.” Native elders participating in ongoing ceremonies at Thacker Pass requested the construction of temporary latrines that Falk and Wilbert’s persecution by the BLM is largely based on. 

Private consultants paid by both BLM and Lithium Nevada

A report published by the Associated Press on October 29th detailed a “shroud of secrecy” surrounding the Thacker Pass mine permitting. The report says that BLM relied heavily on a third-party hydrogeologist, Tyler Cluff, to prepare 1,300 pages of reports for the Environmental Impact Statement for the Thacker Pass lithium mine proposal despite a major conflict of interest: Cluff is also a paid consultant for Lithium Nevada Corporation and a star witness in their defense in local rancher Edward Bartell’s lawsuit.

 A motion filed by Bartell’s attorney in late October states that “This unusual relationship between a third-party contractor… and LNC [Lithium Nevada Corporation] suggests that [Cluff’s company] was not working for BLM… in a neutral and independent capacity, but rather, was working directly for LNC.”

 Terry Lodge, another attorney representing Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, says this type of unethical behavior is actually common in the environmental consulting industry. He points to the fact that the Army Corps of Engineers hired a company that is a member of the oil-industry group American Petroleum Institute to prepare the environmental reports for the Dakota Access Pipeline, and employees of that organization testified in favor of approving the pipeline.

 “These supposedly ‘independent’ contractors make money by working for both the government and corporations at the same time,” Lodge says. “It could not be clearer that BLM and Lithium Nevada are working together to manipulate and abuse the public, the tribes, and wildlife.”

Background on the Thacker Pass mine project

 The proposed Thacker Pass lithium mine would be a 17,933 acre (28 square mile) project centered on a 1,100 acre open-pit. The project would also include a lithium processing plant, sulfuric acid plant (using sulfur from the oil and gas industry), a new electric substation, a seven-mile-long powerline, and a seven-mile-long water pipeline to carry 4.6 million gallons daily from the Quinn River watershed to the mine site.

 The mine site is habitat for bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope, mule deer, greater sage-grouse, golden eagles, burrowing owls, pygmy rabbits, migratory birds, and hundreds of other species.

 According to the Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW), the project would cause “permanent” harm to “wildlife, ground and surface waters, and riparian vegetation” both “within and outside the project area.” The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has also expressed serious concern about pollution from the mine.

 NDOW has expressed particular concern about sage-grouse abandoning nearby breeding areas due to noise from the mine. Thacker Pass is designated “priority habitat” for the species. Sage-grouse are at serious risk of extinction across their habitat in the American west. Much less widely spread, but just as threatened, is an endemic snail species called the King’s River pyrg, who lives only in Thacker Pass,

 The project is predicted to lower groundwater levels in nearby aquifers by hundreds of feet, and to pollute land, air, and water with arsenic, antimony, radioactive materials, and other toxic substances.

 Lithium Nevada, subsidiary of Canadian corporation Lithium Americas, planned to begin constructing the mine in early 2021, but determined opposition has slowed the project. Resistance to the proposed mine has included multiple lawsuits from ranchers, environmentalists, and tribes, as well as water rights challenges, public protests, and contentious meetings in Orovada, McDermitt, Reno, Winnemucca, and Carson City. Protest camps on the proposed mine site have been in place for nearly 10 months.


About the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony 

The Reno-Sparks Indian Colony formed a federally recognized government in 1936 under the Indian Reorganization Act.  Located in Reno, Nev., the RSIC consists of 1,206 members from three Great Basin Tribes – the Paiute, Shoshone and Washoe Tribes. The RSIC is a vibrant, diverse organization, which balances traditional teachings and rich culture with contemporary business methods. Our mission is to offer opportunities for tribal members to improve their lives and enhance tribal values by making community programs, services, and projects available.