State official: Thacker Pass lithium mine may be better bet than Rhyolite Ridge

A June 1, 2019, photo provided by the Center for Biological Diversity shows Tiehm's buckwheat blooming at Rhyolite Ridge in the Silver Peak Range of western Nevada. (Photo: Patrick Donnelly/Center for Biological Diversity via AP, file)

A June 1, 2019, photo provided by the Center for Biological Diversity shows Tiehm's buckwheat blooming at Rhyolite Ridge in the Silver Peak Range of western Nevada. (Photo: Patrick Donnelly/Center for Biological Diversity via AP, file)

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Brad Crowell, director of the Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, said on Nevada Newsmakers that the future looks brighter for the proposed lithium mine at Thacker Pass in Humboldt County than it does for the Rhyolite Ridge site in Esmeralda County.
"All the challenges related to Thacker Pass, from my perspective and my jurisdiction, are manageable," Crowell told host Sam Shad. "They just need to be managed."
Crowell did not exhibit the same enthusiasm for the Rhyolite Ridge project, although scientists say it holds the largest known lithium and boron deposits in North America.
A small desert plant which only grows on about 10 acres of land at the proposed mine site, called Tiehm's buckwheat, is under consideration for the federal Endangered Species Act. Inclusion into the act could block mining at the site.
The proposed mine would eventually destroy as much as 90 percent of the global population of the wildflower, according to conservationists. Studies are underway at the University of Nevada, Reno, to see if the Tiehm's buckwheat can be transplanted. Yet so far, it has only thrived in the mineral-rich soil at the lithium-mine site.
"We don't yet know if the plant can be transplanted into new locations and be successful," Crowell said. "We're going through that process now. The feds, the companies are helping that research at UNR and the state is involved in it as well.
"If we can prove out that you can trans-locate and propagate the plant and it can survive, and the mine can do its thing, great," Crowell said. "But we don't have that data yet. And until we do, (we can't) make those decisions. So I would tell folks to exercise patience and hopefully we can find science to allow for both of these things to move forward. But we don't know yet."
However, a spokesperson for Ioneer, the company that wants to mine the lithium at Rhyolite Ridge, does not agree with the assessment.
"That's what CBD (Center for Biological Diversity) contends, but not what Ioneer has committed to as part of the Mine Plan of Operations submitted to BLM," wrote Jen Eastwood in an email to Shad.
“The quarry has been located and designed to minimize disturbance to the Tiehm's buckwheat habitat," Eastwood wrote. "Under the current proposal, approximately 30 percent of the total occupied habitat would be impacted, and 65 percent of the individual plants would be removed and relocated to unoccupied, suitable habitat within the Project Area identified for transplanting and re-seeding.
"Ioneer will not and cannot destroy the population; the company will 1) protect and not touch a significant amount of the population; 2) will remove and relocate certain plants and, 3) grow additional plants.
At Thacker Pass, Crowell sees a path to solve issues surrounding the mine, even though the mine has been fiercely opposed by environmentalists and Native American tribes.
"There is concern about water and contamination of the water table, so we've adjusted our permit from the state side to only allow extractions above the water table so we protect that," he said.
"The local committee is concerned about noise and truck traffic and things like that, which is legitimate," Crowell added. "They are working with the company to fund infrastructure that will help build new roads, move a school to a new location, so it is not burdened by these things. We'll be able to mitigate for sage grouse impacts. All of these things are manageable, if done correctly."
Proponents of the Thacker Pass mine scored a victory July 23 when federal Judge Miranda Du ruled in Reno that preliminary digging at the site can proceed. The digging will help determine if the site holds historical and archaeological value to Native Americans.
In early 2022, Du is expected to rule on the broader question of whether the administration of former President Trump erred when it approved the project in January.
The stakes are high in Nevada's lithium debate since the mineral is critical for a clean-energy future that includes batteries to operate electric vehicles.
Nevada is poised to become an international lithium leader, Crowell said. Already, Tesla is building lithium-base batteries for its electric cars at its gigafactory at the Tahoe-Reno Industrial Complex east of Reno.
The American Battery Technology Company has broken ground on a 60,000-square-foot lithium-ion battery recycling facility in Fernley, according to published reports.
The company would start out recycling 20,000 metric tons of lithium-ion batteries per year, before scaling up to handling 100,000 metric tons annually.
The latter amount alone would match the number of lithium-ion batteries that were recycled in all of 2018 globally, according to London-based Circular Energy Storage.
"Lithium, from my perspective, is one of the great emerging economic stories for Nevada that will really be a benefit if we can leverage it correctly," Crowell said. "We have a unique ability, compared to other states, to have the full economic lifecycle for lithium, from extraction to production in batteries to recycling it back into the supply chain. And we have all three of those components here."


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