In Nevada’s Thacker Pass, will ancient stone become lithium become batteries become money? Will 16 million years of sacred silence be shattered?
by MAX WILBERT
February 1, 2021
I sit on a clifftop in northern Nevada, an hour into the desert from the nearest town —Winnemucca. It is dawn. Big sagebrush carpets the broad saddle in front of me. Its sweet smell rises to my perch. Birds wheel over the mountains to the north. The sun rises dusky red through wildfire smoke on the eastern horizon. All I can hear is the wind. It caresses my skin, still warm in early fall. All I can see is wild. But within a few months, all of this could be gone.
This place, Thacker Pass, is the site of a proposed $1.3 billion lithium mine. Lithium Americas, the corporation proposing the mine, plans to turn Thacker Pass into an industrial extraction zone stretching across more than 17,000 acres. The open pit alone would cover two square miles, and that’s just for the first stage of the mine.
Exploration areas included in Lithium America’s planning documents could triple that size, and tailings piles, processing facilities, and treatment ponds would sprawl across more land. According to project documents, the mine would burn 11,000 gallons of diesel fuel per day, and rely on more than 75 semi-truck loads of sulfur (waste from oil refineries) as the key chemical ingredient in processing the ore.
The mine, if built, would use and pollute more than 1.5 billion gallons of water per year, dropping water tables and potentially drying out 14 springs that are the only home of a springsnail species called the King’s River pyrg. It would impact golden eagles, pronghorn antelope migration routes, and the best greater sage-grouse habitat left in Nevada.
The demand for lithium is driven partly by the rise in personal electronics that use lithium-ion batteries, but mostly by skyrocketing demand for electric cars. The irony is not lost on me: millions are pinning their hopes for saving the planet on electric cars that require the destruction of this land.
Looking across the landscape, I imagine this quiet sagebrush desert turned into a mountaintop removal mine. My body shudders, my pupils contract, my heart beats faster. I feel fear for this land. These stark vistas, these star-spangled nights, these coyote mornings are threatened.
I do not know if this mountain can be saved. But I know that in capitulation there is the death of the soul, and in fighting we fight not only for pronghorn and prairie falcon, burrowing owl and our brother coyote, but for our own wild souls. And in fighting, we have a chance to win, to turn back the land destroyers, no matter how “green” they claim to be, and keep the wild land of Thacker Pass wild.
The choice of whether or not we will win is not up to me. It is up to you.
— Max Wilbert, February 1, 2021