The rise of electric vehicles is disrupting life in a small Western community

A proposed lithium mine in rural northern Nevada has created unlikely alliances as efforts to address climate change clash with the impacts of mining

People rarely talk about the quiet on northern Nevada’s Thacker Pass, although besides the rolling, sage-filled hills below the Double H and Montana mountains and the empty, so-blue-it-hurts-a-little sky, the quiet demands your attention.

The silence awes Wendelyn Muratore, who lives about 5 miles away from Thacker Pass on an alfalfa farm in Kings River Valley. The land surrounding her home is so quiet that after snow falls she can hear her neighbor’s footsteps crossing his yard a mile away. 

“It’s a little tiny place on the map, but it’s beautiful,” Muratore said. “The solitude. The quiet. The beauty of the desert.” There’s nothing like the smell of sagebrush after a rain.

Wendelyn Muratore poses for a photo at her farm in Kings River Valley, Nev., on Thursday, April 1, 2021. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

But since hearing about the Thacker Pass open-pit lithium mine proposal and all the traffic it would bring in from hauling raw materials, plus the hundreds of workers that would commute from Winnemucca, she’s been having trouble sleeping. She doesn’t want the quiet to break, doesn’t want this place she calls home to change.

“I can’t tell you how many nights I’ve laid in bed at night, just staring at the ceiling, wondering what horrible things they’re going to do.”

By “they,” Muratore means Lithium Nevada, a subsidiary of Lithium Americas. And by what they’re going to do, she means the tailings pile that could be left behind, the sulfur that will be trucked in, and the arsenic and antimony she fears will leach into the groundwater as a result of the lithium mine. 

This corner of northern Nevada is not often the subject of both local and national news stories. But the valley has erupted in controversy the past few months as Lithium Nevada moved onto the next stage of its proposed lithium mine on Thacker Pass.

As the country tackles ambitious new climate change goals, lithium production — a key mineral for the batteries that power electric vehicles and backup systems for wind and solar generation — is slated to be a part of that future. But people like Muratore are beginning to question what the cost will be to realize a greener future and the community they believe could be destroyed in the process.

Ranchers now talk about “green washing,” Elon Musk and how their opinions on environmental-friendly electric vehicles have changed. They even talk about the once-dismissed sage grouse and hearing the sounds of the bird with the early morning light. On the other side, advocates of the mine are focused on the ticking clock of climate change and the potential for electric vehicles to be part of the solution.

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With the final environmental impact statement completed by the Bureau of Land Management, the day the operation might break ground (aside from the dirt roads and weather station already in place) seems ever nearer. Ranchers in the communities of Orovada and King’s River are fighting the mine (Muratore joined Great Basin Resource Watch, an environmental group that filed a lawsuit) and activists have been rotating in and out of the proposed site, staging an occupation.

Lithium Nevada said it has been consulting with the community, with both ranchers and tribes, but within the Quinn River Valley support for the project is hard to find.

In Nevada, mining has a long legacy of offering economic opportunity, giving it an influential voice among policymakers eager to accommodate the industry’s interests. It appears that may remain the case when it comes to mining the state’s lithium resources.

The sun sets over a protest camp at the site of a proposed lithium mine at Thacker Pass, Nev., on Thursday, April 1, 2021. Protesters have camped at the site in shifts since January to stand in opposition to the mine. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

An uncertain future

After Muratore’s husband graduated high school, they were living in California and he rented “every little piece of ground that he could get his hands on to get his foot in farming.” An opportunity to farm in Kings River came up, and they were eventually able to purchase the land. Other people think of Nevada as empty, deserted. To them, it is home, where they raised their children, the place they hoped to pass on to the next generation. Now they are contemplating where they might relocate, where they could afford to go, if the mine moves forward.

They are not alone in their fear and frustration.

Edward Bartell, a rancher in Orovada, has found himself fielding a lot of calls from reporters and directing photographers to the parcel of land where he grazes cattle — the land Bartell worries would go barren if the proposed lithium mine goes forward. He is also dealing with the challenge of suing the Bureau of Land Management. 

Tall and lean with a deep but soft voice, Bartell said he doesn’t mind dealing with reporters. But Lithium Nevada and the bureau are another matter. In his lawsuit against the government, he claims that both the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act were violated in the environmental assessment process.

According to the complaint filed in Nevada’s U.S. District Court, the project could potentially endanger Lahontan cutthroat trout, which Bartell said he’s put in a lot of effort to protect — building fences around streams to keep cattle out and implementing rotational grazing. The lawsuit claims the BLM failed to properly consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about the impacts to the endangered species. 

It also describes the agency’s environmental impact statement as “a one-sided, deeply flawed, and incomplete analysis and characterization of the proposed project and its likely adverse environmental impact.”

In between tending to his cattle and raising his two children, Bartell spends his weekends and what little free time he has on the lawsuit, combing through the mine proposal’s environmental impact statement, wrapping his head around complicated analysis and mining operations plans. 

“The more I found out about the mine, the more troubling it becomes,” Bartell said.

He leases a total of 50,000 acres and believes part of the land he leases and owns will be impacted by the mine operations. He said the environmental impact statement process was rushed (it took place in roughly a year), and due to COVID-19, not enough people in the community were consulted. 

“A lot of it was all online, and several people are elderly, and they don’t have access or know how to do that.” He said that the final statement contained many errors — among them are claims about the existence (or lack thereof) of groundwater.

“The project consultants relied upon grossly inaccurate, incomplete and inadequate data for constructing baselines and models purporting to estimate impacts to water resources caused by the groundwater pumping that would be associated with the mine,” the lawsuit states.

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After meeting Bartell at the local Shell gas station, I followed his blue flatbed truck down the highway leading out to Thacker Pass. We paused at a dirt road, turning right so he could show me the land he’s worried about. Bartell explained that if his water table is drawn down as a result of the mining operations, the land now populated with grasses would go barren — leaving his cattle with little to nourish themselves with and making the property worthless. “It would substantially devalue our property and transform grassland into dusty, dry land.”

When reached for comment, Lithium Nevada responded in an email: “We’ve worked hard to gain approval through the public process that now allows us to move forward while following a detailed monitoring and mitigation plan. Our project is based on 10 years of data collection and numerous meetings with the surrounding communities and other interested parties. We welcome the newly created community committee and look forward to many years of working closely with our neighbors.”

The company’s spokesperson referred me to Maxine Redstar, chairwoman of the Fort McDermitt Paiute Shoshone Tribe, which entered into a “project engagement agreement.” In early March, Redstar said she had no immediate comment as they were still evaluating the project and had not yet made up their minds about whether they supported it. On March 29, the tribal council voted to end the project engagement agreement.

The sun sets on Kings River Valley, Nev., on Thursday, April 1, 2021. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Is lithium the new oil?

The United States has so far relied on other countries — from China to Chile — for its supply of lithium.

The U.S. currently produces and processes just 1% of lithium in the world and there is only one operational mine in the country, also in Nevada. That leaves roughly 6.8 million tons of lithium deposits largely untapped as the extraction process has been too costly to profit off the investment. But that calculation is changing with the rising demand for electric vehicles — lithium, the lightest of the metals, is a critical component in the batteries that charge electric vehicles. 

Big name financiers from Bill Gates to Warren Buffett are investing in companies developing new lithium extraction methods, according to the Wall Street Journal.  In North Carolina, a once-abandoned lithium mine is being revived, and several projects are in the works in the West. 

But many of the proposed lithium sites in the West are drawing the ire of a diverse and unexpected cross section of opponents, from ranchers to Native Americans to environmentalists. In California, after the initial exploration phase in 2019, a lithium project in Panamint Valley generated public backlash. The director of the California and Desert programs for the National Parks Conservation Association told the Los Angeles Times, “This is a misplaced mining project in an area that the public has already agreed should be protected for generations to come.” 

The irony is not lost on the environmentalists.

“It’s a difficult political position to be in,” Stephen Hoffman, a former senior environmental scientist that led mining efforts within the EPA said. If the U.S. wants to transition away from oil and gas, and toward electric, the batteries used to store power have to be made from materials that come out of the earth. They have to be mined. 

“Should we be bearing some of the burden? That’s the issue. And yes, a community someplace is going to bear the burden,” Hoffman said. 

That tension is manifested in the opinions of two Nevadans who usually stand on the same side: John Hadder, of the Great Basin Resource Watch, and Glenn Miller, a retired professor from the University of Nevada who has spent most of his life opposing mining operations across the world. 

He believes the potential good that could come from lithium mining outweighs the costs. Unlike gold — one of the dominant minerals mined in the state, lithium is necessary, Miller reasoned. 

“I considered climate change probably the biggest threat to the global environment,” Miller said. “I think that the lithium mines are much less damaging. All mining is damaging to the environment, but this is much less damaging than some of the other projects we’ve permitted in Nevada.” 

Hadder, of Great Basin Resource Watch, on the other hand, is deeply skeptical of the mine and the environmental impact statement. “If we’re going to ask communities to shoulder the effects, negative and positive, of mining projects so that we can use a mineral, we owe it to those communities to at least have an independent assessment so they can understand the full range of consequences.”

Hope is scarce

“In the last two years they’ve picked up on the exploration part of this, and so I knew it was coming,” said Ron Cerri, Humboldt County commissioner and owner of a ranch 10 miles away from the proposed mine. “Then I also knew that they were working with the BLM to get an environmental impact statement completed.”

Cerri said he can think of two times the company came to the commission to discuss the project.

He is not optimistic about their chances of stopping the mine. No one I speak with is. Hoffman said that legal challenges to environmental impact statements are hard to win as long as the basic procedures were followed, and it’s difficult to convince a judge that shoddy scientific work is an issue.

The Bureau of Land Management has yet to file a response to the complaint Bartell filed in early February, and the bureau’s Winnemucca district office declined to comment.

“I think we have kind of acknowledged now that we may not stop it. So how do we make the best of it? And that’s what we’re trying to do,” Cerri said. “We know that our community will change forever, it will never be the same.”

An occupation site

For now, things are mostly the same, aside from the strange alliances the project has forged in the community between ranchers, environmentalists and Native American tribes. “I have never thought of myself as an environmentalist. You know, we’re farmers,” Muratore said with a little bit of a laugh when asked if the term applies to her. 

On an early March day at Thacker Pass, the land is still unobscured for miles. Protesters have been occupying the site since Jan. 15, when the Bureau of Land Management issued its final record of decision for the mine.

Lynsey Piccolo, a full-time activist for the time being, wears a headlamp loosely slung around her neck, is holding down camp alone.

The founders of the Protect Thacker Pass protest had to leave after the bureau threatened to arrest them. A sign attached to a fresh wood post stands guard at the dirt road leading up to the pass outline occupation rules for the protesters: “Camping is allowed for up to 14 days in a 28 day period. ... You must relocate at least 25 miles away after 14 days.”

Signs decorate the fencing surrounding the weather tower set up by Nevada Lithium. “Protect Thacker Pass.” “Respect the sacred.” And, maybe a bit on the nose, “ANTI-MINE PROTEST.” Pallets form a makeshift kitchen station, surrounded by gallons of water, cast iron pans, a bottle of hand sanitizer and a sign that says “HOME to sage grouse, pronghorn antelope, burrowing desert owl, horned lizard, loggerhead shrike, pygmy rabbit, prairie falcon. …”

Signage hung by protesters decries a proposed lithium mine at Thacker Pass, Nev., on Thursday, April 1, 2021. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

A man named Paul, who said he drove here from Walnut Creek, California, and has been exchanging emails with a woman at the site, shows up. He takes pictures, leaves a few wash tubs and other supplies the mysterious woman has requested and leaves.

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I wander around the site, trying to picture the industry in place of calm. It is beautiful in the way that many parts of the arid West are, silent in a way that is getting harder to find. It seems like a nice place to camp in the summer, when the snow has melted and the temperatures no longer dip below freezing. 

The quiet. The solitude. The beauty of the desert, as Muratore said. It’s what makes many here want to call this place home.

If Thacker Pass becomes a lithium mine, the occasional Tesla driver some day might speed down I-80, past Winnemucca, without ever knowing that if they turned on U.S. 95 and headed north, a metal so light and crucial to the batteries that make their motion possible, was being pulled from the earth. 

That in the hopes of saving the land, one piece had been sacrificed. 

Starlight illuminates the sagebrush and mountains near the site of a proposed lithium mine at Thacker Pass, Nevada.
Starlight illuminates the sagebrush and mountains near the site of a proposed lithium mine at Thacker Pass, Nev., on Thursday, April 1, 2021. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
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