Recent coverage of the Thacker Pass lithium mine in the Nevada press overlooks the controversy around this project.
Lithium Americas Corporation (LAC) has faced four lawsuits, three protest camps, nonviolent blockades and criticism in the press over impacts to sacred cultural areas such as the 1865 Thacker Pass massacre site, destruction of wildlife habitat and use of 5 million gallons of water daily. Nevada hasn’t seen so much controversy over a mine since Mount Tenabo and the Dann Sisters.
But what most readers will not know is that Lithium Americas isn’t just dealing with opposition in Nevada. Its Argentina lithium project (co-owned with the Chinese state-owned corporation Ganfeng Lithium) is also facing determined opposition.
For more than a month mass protests have been taking place near Lithium Americas’ Cauchari-Olaroz mine. Kolla and Guaraní indigenous people say a new constitutional change “empowers private landowners to evict them … in a context of increased disputes over land rights regarding the extraction of lithium by multinational corporations.”
Amnesty International and a dozen human rights organizations have demanded the suspension of these new laws, noting that police have attacked protesters with “excessive use of force, indiscriminately using rubber bullets, tear gas and physical violence.” Despite the violence, communities have continued to organize; last week, a protest caravan of thousands arrived in Buenos Aires.
In Mark Robison’s recent Reno Gazette-Journal article, LAC representative Tim Crowley states that “he is unaware if the company has had problems with protesters in other countries.” I suspect that is a lie — one of many that Crowley and Lithium Americas have told for years. Minera Exar, Lithium Americas’ shell company in Argentina, has been named in a report from the Business and Human Rights Resource Center about human rights abuses committed by mining companies.
Eager to distance themselves from troubling human rights concerns, protests, worker deaths and Chinese connections that may impair access to government funding, Lithium Americas has decided to split into two companies — one focused in Argentina, the other in North America. This is the corporate playbook: limit liability and protect profits at all costs.
One Argentine researcher told The Washington Post, “It’s like a joke … [the mining companies] really think the indigenous are like stones in the road. If there’s a problem, they have to kick it aside.” The Post article observes one hand-painted sign in Argentina reading, “We don’t eat batteries. They take the water, life is gone.”
People here would do well to pay attention. Nevada is the driest state in the country and, according to the Nevada Division of Minerals, there were an estimated 20,127 active lithium mining claims in the state as of April 30. Meanwhile, a recent article in Time magazine says: “There are good reasons for U.S. communities to have healthy skepticism about mining projects … There are more than 50,000 abandoned mines in the western United States alone, 80% of which still need to be remediated.”
Thacker Pass involves the same risks. During the annual conference of the Western Mining Action Network in Reno last year, Professor Steven H. Emmerman, an independent hydrologist, called Lithium Americas’ toxic tailings storage plan “reckless creativity” not based in science, and believes there is a significant chance of either catastrophic failure (as with the Mount Polley disaster in British Columbia) or gradual leakage of pollution into the water table for thousands of years.
And what of global warming? While Lithium Americas claims that lithium is needed to address climate change, its mine will directly contribute thousands of tons of carbon emissions and pollutants per year to the already overburdened atmosphere. More is being released now as the company tears up old-growth sagebrush and delicate topsoil.
Electric vehicles may be less harmful for the climate than internal combustion engines, but they’re certainly not good for the planet. As EVs get larger, the carbon savings gets smaller. One study found that electric SUV proliferation will “not necessarily contribute to mitigating car emissions” if lithium and other essential materials are constrained (they are). Meanwhile, Lithium Americas has signed a deal with General Motors, which produces the electric Hummer, the biggest EV of all.
Any savings in greenhouse gas emissions from EVs will be a drop in the bucket. Growth in the size of cars and in the overall car sector means it is likely that carbon dioxide emissions from transportation will continue to grow.
A global land grab for lithium is taking place. Mining is starting or expanding in Portugal, the United Kingdom, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, Australia, Tibet and China. All these projects cause harm, and communities are fighting back. In Serbia, for example, massive opposition blocked Rio Tinto from mining lithium in one of the most productive agricultural valleys in the country.
It’s not “green” to destroy the land, whether you’re mining coal or lithium. If we want to stop global warming, changing what’s under the hoods of our cars isn’t enough. Reducing emissions and saving our planet means challenging our culture of consumption and growth.
That’s the new inconvenient truth.
Max Wilbert is co-author of the book Bright Green Lies: How The Environmental Movement Lost Its Way and What We Can Do About It and is co-founder of Protect Thacker Pass.