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Tribes, conservationists, residents pan draft environmental review of lithium mine


by Jeniffer Solis, Nevada Current

Federal land managers will now start the arduous task of sifting through thousands of public comments for a contentious lithium mine that could degrade about 22% of critical habitat reserved for an endangered Nevada wildflower.

Last week, the Bureau of Land Management closed public comments on a draft environmental impact survey for the proposed Rhyolite Ridge Lithium-Boron mine in Esmeralda County, near the Nye County border.

Those comments will inform the development of a final environmental review and record of decision for the project by Australian mining company Ioneer Corp. —which is expected prior to the end of 2024.

Rhyolite Ridge in Nevada is one of the only two major known global deposits of lithium-boron. It’s also the location of the only known population of the Tiehm’s buckwheat plant, a rare wildflower listed as endangered by the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service in 2022. Federal wildlife managers also designated over 900 acres of protected habitat for the wildflower, overlapping the mine’s proposed site in Esmeralda County.

Despite the listing, Australia-based mine developer Ioneer Corp., has maintained the company’s planned lithium mine and the rare wildflower unique to Nevada can coexist.

“Listening has made our project stronger, and we look forward to addressing feedback to the Bureau of Land Management from the public comment period,” said Ioneer managing director Bernard Rowe in a statement. “We are excited to complete the remaining steps in the federal permitting process, begin construction, and provide the critical components set to power millions of American electric vehicles.”

However, conservation groups argue that Ioneer has done little to address the serious environmental concerns from scientists and federal wildlife agencies related to the mine.

Habitat sliding into the pit?

If approved, the mine could eliminate up to 22% of designated critical habitat for the species, and create a permanent quarry and pit lake within the wildflowers’ federally designated critical habitat. Ioneer said 11% of damage to the wildflowers critical habitat would almost certainly be permanent.

The 200 acre quarry itself — a deep open pit characteristic of mines and where the lithium would be extracted — would be located just 44 feet from occupied habitat and 114 ft away from the largest known subpopulation of the wildflower, according to the draft environmental impact survey.

The wildflowers proximity to the quarry’s edge could also leave the one of a kind plant vulnerable to physically sliding into the open pit if its slopes can’t be stabilized, according to a scoping report by the U.S.Fish and Wildlife Service.

In a separate report prepared for the Center for Biological Diversity by Malach Consulting, geologists came to the same conclusion.

“Our analysis of the pit wall stability shows that some amount of pit wall collapse is inevitable over the long term, due to the friability of the rock, the steepness of the pit walls, and the lack of certainty about how the rock will interact with water over time,” said Patrick Donnelly, the Great Basin Director of the Center for Biological Diversity.

“It’s almost a certainty that Tiehm’s buckwheat will end up at the bottom of the pit on a long timeframe, maybe not 10 years, but in 100 years it’s almost guaranteed,” Donnelly said.

Dewatering the aquifer

The Center for Biological Diversity, the Western Shoshone Defense Project, the Great Basin Resource Watch, the Sierra Club, Earthworks, the Western Watersheds Project and the Basin and Range Watch submitted a 66-page public comment alleging the proposed mine violates several federal laws, including the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

Conservation groups criticized the draft environmental impact survey for neglecting to include a groundwater mitigation plan for the mine. 

During mining operations, groundwater needs to be removed when a mine extends below the water table, an action called mine dewatering. Rhyolite Ridge’s Lithium-Boron mine would be 960 feet deep, “as deep as the Empire State Building is tall,” said Donelley.  

“They will need to basically drain the aquifer to prevent the pit from filling with water,” he continued.

Fish Lake Valley, which is already sitting on an over-pumped aquifer, could be affected by the mine dewatering process, argue conservation groups. A falling aquifer in Fish Lake Valley could endanger other rare species that rely on spring feed by the aquifer, including Fish Lake Valley tui chub and the Tecopa bird’s beak wildflower.

Drawdown could be up to 300 feet near the quarry, and up to 10 feet throughout the aquifer, but how far out that drawdown could be is not clear in the draft environmental impact survey. 

“As we see it, there is a grave risk of extinction to these other aquatic species due to the groundwater drawdown from this mine,” said Donelley.

Several residents of Esmeralda County and Nye County also submitted public comments regarding their concerns over how the mine would affect their water supply.

Ioneer argues that groundwater from mine dewatering would recover over a period of about 60 years. The company also said if impacts to surface water are observed and found to be related to the mine, they would address those impacts then.

Tribal concerns

Native American groups also expressed opposition to the mine and the draft environmental impact survey in public comments. 

Fermina Stevens — a citizen of the Western Shoshone Nation and executive director of the Western Shoshone defense project — said the Bureau of Land Management “does not respect the concept of meaningful consultation with the tribes.”

“It is our understanding that Nevada is the hotbed for critical mineral extraction, and we are concerned with the speed in which projects are being pushed through. For many years, we have attempted to initiate dialogue with the United States regarding traditional land rights and treaty rights to no avail,” Stevens said.

Despite growing opposition, the mine has also received plenty of support too.

The Nye County Commission unanimously voted to approve a letter of support for the Rhyolite Ridge’s Lithium-Boron mine in May. Last year, the Biden Administration also pledged a $700 million loan for the project, conditional on permit approvals. 

According to Ioneer’s projections, Rhyolite Ridge will create about 500 construction jobs over a two-to-three year construction period and up to 350 workers during operations, generating an estimated $125 million in wages annually during the 26 year lifespan of the mine.

Lithium is one of 50 minerals identified as “critical” by the U.S. Geological Survey. Lithium batteries are used extensively in the growing market for portable electronic devices, vehicles, and grid storage applications. If approved, the project could potentially produce enough lithium to supply batteries for nearly 370,000 electric vehicles each year, according to Ioneer.

“Once operational, Rhyolite Ridge will quadruple the nation’s lithium supply, playing an important role in strengthening the domestic supply chain for minerals critical to the clean energy transition,” Ioneer managing director, Rowe said in a statement.

Stevens, a citizen of the Western Shoshone Nation and executive director of the Western Shoshone defense project, said she would continue to oppose the mine for the “health of the planet, water, people and communities” in Nevada.

Donnelly argued the draft environmental impact survey is “riddled with errors, omissions, obfuscations, unsupported assertions and intentionally withheld data,” adding that the mine as proposed “would result in the extinction of teams buckwheat.”

“These deficiencies are, really, quite glaring,” Donnelly said. 

Nevada Current
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